Sarah Harte has written a novel for our time, says Rowena Walsh
Two years ago, Sarah Harte burst on to the Irish literary scene with her tell-all tale of Dublin's 'smart set' in the boom time. The Better Half referred to Frank and Anita, a boorish developer and his society queen of a wife and explored just what happened to the country's high-fliers when the money ran out.
It was a world that Harte would have been all too familiar with. She is the wife of entrepreneur Jay Bourke, the celebrity restaurateur, publican and hotelier, and they would surely have wined and dined with Ireland's biggest names during the country's short-lived high times.
To the outsider, the glamorous couple responsible for such cool spots as The Globe, Eden restaurant and Bellinter House would have seemed to have it all. But like so many, they too are feeling the pinch of the downturn.
Harte has acknowledged that while she was writing The Better Half, the couple's financial circumstances began to change and she felt that she should be helping her husband.
"I should be out working and bringing in money to take the pressure off him because it was intensifying," she has said. "I'd have mini-meltdowns because I was so worried about the book. He told me I was taking a big risk but I had to go with it. I had to stay the course and not lose my bottle."
It was a gamble worth taking. Although I think Harte's debut would have had more resonance if it had been published sooner – by 2011, the activities of the selfish set had surely lost their allure as we all suffered under the IMF dictates – it was a gripping story with some sharp observations, not least that friendship can be a moveable commodity.
It's this theme that Harte revisits in her latest novel Thick and Thin. Marianne and Clare have been best friends since they met as students. Two decades on and party girl Marianne has reinvented herself as a devoted mother of two trying to cope while her ostracised banker husband suffers from the fallout of the recession.
Shy, retiring Clare is now a doctor and she and Joe, a barrister, seem to have fared better, at least financially, although their marriage is a strangely empty union. Their Catholic faith holds them together, as does Clare's ability to turn a blind eye to any potential difficulties in their relationship. She and Marianne have relied on each other and neither has ever doubted each other's support and loyalty through drink, drugs and an adulterous affair.
But when Marianne's 16-year-old daughter Grace admits she's pregnant and that Clare's teenage son Finn is the father, their friendship is put to the ultimate test. Clare and Joe are staunchly pro-life. As a twenty-something, Marianne went to London, looking for a solution to her very Irish problem.
Sarah Harte's debut novel may have been overtaken by the depth of the recession, but as the abortion debate continues to rage, this book is so much more timely. Although some of the narrative feels unintentionally jumpy and both Marianne and Clare are flawed characters, there's a real poignancy to this considered tale.
Thankfully Harte doesn't seem to suffer from the same worries in her relationship as Marianne or Claire.
She has said: "Jay and I have gone to bat for each other through thick and thin and I would always back him to the hilt."
It's a compliment that Bourke has certainly repaid. The couple seem very happy to jointly publicise Harte's literary endeavours. We certainly haven't heard the last of Ms Harte.