Thursday's book: Are You Somebody? Nuala O'Faolain

Rare is the book that you really cannot put down, the one that seems as necessary, poignant, impossible and joyful as life. This short work of memory and desire by one of Ireland's most prominent columnists is one of them.

Are You Somebody? has the form of a long low-voiced conversation through the night, where every piece of narrative comes at the moment best suited to it, where the whole builds up through an endless return to significant pieces.

O'Faolain begins with her childhood, but she never leaves it alone. Her first family are with her right to the end: her alcoholic, passionate mother; her dapper, neglectful journalist father ("using natural charm and courtesy to keep other people at a distance") and her eight sisters and brothers, whose sadnesses she feels more deeply than her own.

This is also a portrait of "old Ireland", a cruel place where children starved behind grey house fronts, where no-one touched them - so they grew up not knowing how to touch. Inevitably, she envies the children of Ireland today who are so much more confident and happy than she and her siblings ever were.

O'Faolain's own adult life was a search to be one of the "beloved of the earth". There were dozens of men; literary intellectuals of varying quality with whom she seemed to have shared a rainbow of ideas and work but little happiness. It is frightening how often she admits that she slept with a man only because she was afraid not to. She digs beneath the surface to understand how her relationships were made up of a constellation of things: the assumptions of old Ireland's patriarchy, her own past, and her living difficult self.

Many of those men she knew in her youth, as friends or lovers, are now middle-aged and respectable. "And middle-aged members of the Irish establishment behave as if there is no history between them. There is a pretence that no feelings are in play between people." Part of the radicalism of this memoir, then, is its disruption of that bland but remaining cruelty.

After the book came out, a man sought her out, kissed her passionately in a dark pub corridor and then walked away, promising to return. Her acknowledged burning need for human touch and her sad incredulity at why he did not return was just one of the many things that made me weep in this extraordinary, near-perfect book.

Published by Sceptre, pounds 6.99