Fiction - Kindle edition; New Island Books; 157 pages; 2010.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir's debut novel, You, was published in 2010. I knew absolutely nothing about it, but bought it on a whim and read it over the Christmas break.
It turned out to be a lovely, heartfelt and completely engrossing story about a 10-year-old Irish girl grappling with issues out of her control: the loss of her best friend Gwen, who moves to Wales; the impending birth of a new half-sibling to her father's second wife; and a new man in her mother's life.
I read it after I compiled my favourite reads of 2013, otherwise it would have been on the list. Indeed, it's one of those novels I've been thinking about a lot since I read, which is usually the sign of a very good book.
A Dublin childhood
You is set in Dublin in the 1980s and revolves around the unnamed girl, who is largely responsible for her two siblings — her younger brother Liam, and "the baby", who is her half-brother — because her mother is partial to a drink. A couple of neighbours also help out.
Every so often the girl and Liam go to stay with their dad, who lives on the other side of town. He has remarried and there's another baby on the way. Eventually, they stay with him on an extended basis when their mother goes to hospital for "a little rest" but all the time the girl longs to return home, to her damp, crumbling house by the river Liffey, because she's convinced that her step-mother has it in for her.
Indeed, the girl is never quite sure where her loyalties lie — she loves her mother but hates her new boyfriend; and she loves her father but doesn't like his new wife. The one constant in her life, however, is her best friend Gwen, who causes another spoke to fall off the wheel, as it were, when she announces that she's moving across the Irish Sea to live in Wales. It's almost too much for the girl to bear...
A funny, feisty narrator
You is told in the present tense and in the second person from the viewpoint of the girl, who is feisty and funny and opinionated and cheeky — and fiercely independent.
I'm not normally a fan of second-person narrators, but it's testament to Ní Chonchúir's skills as a writer that the story clips along at a steady pace and never feels laboured. You get pulled into the story because of the girl's voice and get to experience everything she experiences, which makes her tale feel more immediate and real. Here's an example:
Sometimes you wish that your ma was dead and that you, Liam and the baby lived in an orphanage. The people in the orphanage would feel really sorry for you and they would sing songs to you and let you sit on their lap. They’d bring you on picnics in meadows and they’d have a big basket, a checkered blanket and a flask and stuff. Then one day a rich couple would come and adopt the three of you and you would all live happily ever after in a big old house with ponies to ride on. The adoption ma would be movie-style pretty and the adoption da would be tall and handsome and he’d wear a suit and tie. Your da never wears a suit because he’s an electrician and he wears jeans or cords and jumpers. You like to think about all that sometimes, but the good feeling of it doesn’t last because the guilt starts creeping up your body and into your mind. It’s not right to wish that people are dead, especially not a close relative, even if they are narky all the time and make your life a living hell. Your ma has her good points; she just doesn’t like to show them very often.
I often laughed out loud at some of the girl's observations and at other times I wanted to cry. Much of what she thinks and feels provides great insight, not only into her own small world, which is fragmenting at the seams, but at the ways in which her mother is struggling to cope with single parenthood, depression and the fact her ex-husband has moved on and she has not. For that reason, this is a very warm and human book.
Admittedly, I wondered where the narrative was going to take me, but then something quite dramatic and shocking happens mid-way through and suddenly what had been an eloquent character study is transformed into a brilliant family drama tinged by tragedy and heartbreak.
You might be a short and simple story, but it's evocative — of time, of place, of childhood — and incredibly poignant. I loved every word.