Saturday 1 October 2016

An awareness of the complications of the territory of the heart

Tender, Belinda McKeon, Picador, €14.99

Niall MacMonagle

Published 29/06/2015 | 02:30

Memorable: Belinda McKeon can still deliver compelling writing and she has a fine eye for detail
Memorable: Belinda McKeon can still deliver compelling writing and she has a fine eye for detail
Tender cover

In her new novel, Belinda McKeon does several things and does them extraordinarily well. Solace, her impressive debut, which earned her the Sunday Independent Best Newcomer Award in 2011, focused on a father/son relationship, a rural/urban divide.

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Longford and Dublin also feature in her new novel Tender. This time the story is filtered through country girl Catherine Reilly, whom we first meet in 1997, as an eighteen-year-old student at Trinity, and whom we follow through those intense see-saw years of uncertainty and longing, confidence and disappointment.

A James Salter epigraph - 'He was the friend of my life. You know, you only have one friend like that; there can't be two' - succinctly captures Catherine's friendship with James Flynn, "who had given her so many new ways of saying things, so many closer, sharper, more questioning ways of looking at the world". James is creative and charismatic and Catherine falls possessively, excitedly in love.

The novel's chronological structure and, more significantly, the pace with which the narrative unfolds, offer the reader absorbing and compelling descriptions of young people, free of home, learning about themselves and each other.

The banter, catch-phrases, eejitry and conversations are pitch perfect in that coarse, casual way that is distinctly Irish. Even minor characters come alive on the page. As do scenes at parties in trendy, arty Dublin or in Murphy's pub for Catherine's grandfather's birthday.

Literary allusions and quotations can so often spoil a novel but they are intrinsic here in McKeon's handling of Catherine's immersion in her English course.

A Ted Hughes line "What happens in the heart simply happens" becomes a telling comment on Catherine's own situation and her knowing betrayal of the friend of her youth.

But McKeon's portrayal of James's mixture of gregariousness and loneliness, the doomed relationship between Catherine and James and her lonely realisation that James might love her tender but can not love her true is the novel's real achievement. In a few simple words McKeon catches, with Jamesian complexity, her discovering the truth: "It could not be shown. Under no circumstances could it, or anything close to it, anything that was even a shadow of it, be shown". Catherine, much as she might wish to, can not shape the future that she longs for.

The final pages, set in New York fourteen years later, are marvellous, containing as they do the ache that is love and feelings that are - what is the word I'm looking for? - yes, tender. And the novel's closing words leave you with a heightened awareness of how complicated that territory called the heart can be and how a novel can still deliver memorable, quietly compelling writing.

Tender is even more accomplished than Solace, not only for its emotional range, its portrayal of what Jane Austen has called "the tyranny of youth on youth", its ideas about art, its wisdom, its humour but in its stylistic shifts. In the section called Romance the feeling of fragmentation is visually there, without gimmickry, on the page. And her eye for detail - trousers with an "arse like an old turf bag", New York grass that looks "patchy, humiliated-looking" - prove that McKeon can do anything.

This is a very good time for Irish fiction: Tóibín's Nora Webster, Enright's The Green Road, and McKeon's encore, Tender, should make for an interesting autumn of short-list spotting and awards.

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