Editorial note: I take forever to get around to writing book reviews. This is because of many factors: I like to let a book sit and marinate (metaphorically) for a while; I have paid work to be getting on with; and sometimes I just need to read a book a second time to have anything interesting to say about it. I also read many more books than I ever review for the simple reason that many/most [delete according to how cynical you’re feeling] are pretty vanilla and impossible to remember a week after reading (even if you enjoyed them at the time). Now, I’m not knocking vanilla — it’s my go-to flavor when I fancy an ice cream — a well-told story is often a joy to read, but when I sit down to write a review a month or so later, the details of the vanilla story tend to have melted away. That’s partly why I don’t review more than one book a week.
One novel I really want to highlight is Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s You. For the record, I think Nuala Ní Chonchúir is an amazing writer, mostly known for her short and flash fiction. I’ve read several of her short-story collections, and was blown away each and every time (check out Mother America, if you want to know where to start), but I’ve never reviewed her, so I need to begin putting that right.
You is Galway-writer and poet Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s debut novel. While Ní Chonchúir offers a few historical cues to ground us in the year 1980 (the Olympics, Kate Bush on the radio, The Elephant Man, etc.), the story she tells is quite timeless. (You could be forgiven, glancing at the back of the book, for fearing that You might be a bit vanilla — the publisher’s try not to give too much away in the description. But, believe me, it’s anything but!) On the surface, You is a coming-of-age tale, narrated by a 10-year-old girl being raised by a single mother in poverty. Thankfully, those bare facts are as near to Angela’s Ashes-territory as we get, because for our 10-year-old narrator the family’s life is on-the-whole a happy one, their home a safe space. The father has left his wife and now lives in a Corporation flat with another woman, with whom he has a new family. In contrast, the mother, the narrator, and her siblings live in a small house by the river, with friends nearby, wild places to explore, and the girl feels the ineffable something, the spark, the charge of being alive that comes from being around a river. (The grown-ups, of course, fear it, fear change, and the violence of nature.) In contrast, the girl finds her father’s flat stifling, and is unsettled by the wildness and unpredictable danger of the gangs of local children who roam the estate.
The novel is told in the second person. We never learn the narrator’s name, her family mostly using the nickname “little Miss Prim,” but the second person has the effect of drawing us into her confidence, sharing her world-view. Unlike some novels that use child narrators to ironic effect, relying on adult perception to mock the child’s perspective as painfully naive, Ní Chonchúir’s narrative strategy makes the reader feel like a co-conspirator in her narrator’s interpretation of the world; an interpretation that makes Little Miss Prim feel uncomfortably disloyal to her mother and father, whose actions she is beginning to find wanting.
The narrator’s mother is depressed, and bounces between being a loving parent focused on her children, and resenting them, making rash choices to pursue a little fun at the expense of leaving them to their own devices. It’s an impulse that any parent can relate to, and we easily feel the narrator’s tension rise as her mother falls in thrall to a showy boyfriend who’s not good parental material. Thankfully, her mother has a network of supportive friends, and I detected a mild reproach in the author’s contrast of the slightly-striving discontent of the flat dwellers with the essentially decency and spirit of camaraderie among some of the residents of the terraces by the river.
There’s a central tragedy in the novel, that motivates the narrator into drastic action. It’s perhaps better to say little about this in order to maintain the surprise and suspense for the reader, although the novel is not about shocks or surprises (but you will turn the pages of the second half in somewhat breathless haste). The central pleasure is the exquisitely drawn narrative voice, the viewpoint of the child developing an adult self-awareness, while retaining the innocent impulse to do the right thing even though she can’t think through the consequences.
You is a quiet, surprising novel, that captures a young girl’s growing perception of the world quite beautifully. And, even when you know the twist, this is a novel you’ll enjoy rereading.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s You does not have a US publisher (shame!). It can, however, be ordered (w/ free international shipping) from Kennys.ie or the Book Depository <affiliate link> (I have used both many times, so can recommend their services.). I scored my copy in the fabulous Winding Stair Bookshop in Dublin.
Readers can learn more about Nuala Ní Chonchúir on her website…