Saturday 3 December 2016

Books: Moriarty's medics reinventing the genre

The Way We Were, Sinead moriarty, Penguin Ireland, €17.99

Anne Cunningham

Published 17/08/2015 | 02:30

Sinead Moriarty who is now on her 11th book. Photo: Damien Eagers
Sinead Moriarty who is now on her 11th book. Photo: Damien Eagers

Ben and Alice are a happily married couple with two daughters. They live in London, in leafy Kensington, and they both love their jobs, their kids, their friends and their home. Alice is an Irish-born GP with a busy local practice and Ben is a highly respected surgeon, who likes cycling (the new golf) and who, like so many of his lycra-clad comrades, is mildly afflicted with a hint of mid-life ennui. The couple want for nothing and except for the odd minor domestic hiccup, usually involving their eldest teenage daughter, they live humdrum happy lives. Not much to brew a plot with, is it? Something has to go wrong, and by God it does.

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Ben is asked to perform a routine surgical operation on a government official in Eritrea. Since this is just what he needs to break what he sees as the monotony of his life, he jumps at the opportunity. His wife Alice thinks it's a terrible idea, pointing out the obvious dangers of travelling to a war-torn region, but Ben is determined. He needs to slake his thirst for a new experience, so - against Alice's wishes - he flies off to Eritrea, accompanied by a young Irish surgeon called Declan. And pretty soon the brown stuff hits the air conditioning.

It's difficult to reveal much more about the Eritrean situation without dropping a spoiler, but let's just say that everyone's lives are very suddenly plunged into disarray, and the plot progresses by allowing us to witness the impact of grief and shock through the eyes of its principal players. Sinead Moriarty's huge strength is her dialogue which, despite the subject matter, is uproariously funny at times.

Alice's gay brother Kevin, who also happens to be her receptionist, is the rock they all cling to in the midst of disaster and he assumes his new role with admirable finesse and good humour. He and Alice's housekeeper keep the family ship afloat while Alice simply implodes. Meanwhile in Eritrea, it's Declan, the young Irish surgeon, who maintains a mostly upbeat disposition in an impossible situation.

As time marches on and Alice slowly recovers from her grief, she meets Dan, a very wealthy property tycoon who falls madly in love with her, and she slowly finds herself falling for him. She is mindful, however, of how her daughters will react to a new man in their lives, it's been only 18 months since their father was - apparently - killed in a landmine explosion. Although neither his body nor that of his young companion was ever found.

This is commercial fiction and therefore the ending must be happy, but it is the departure from the well-trodden streets of - dare I say it - chicklit, that makes The Way We Were substantially different. Not many novels in this genre find themselves in a war zone, and even less find themselves inside the head of a Kardashian-loving but distraught teenager bent on self-harm. That same teenager is, by the way, given some of the funniest lines in the book.

Moriarty has very consciously broadened her spectrum in this novel, while still satisfying the expectations of her huge following. Clever, eh? It's a breath of fresh air, quietly challenging the apple cart of the genre marketeers, if not quite knocking it over.

Joanne Harris frequently rails against what she calls "book apartheid"; the segregation of women's fiction, although no such category applies to male writers. That said, so many of Harris's less talented contemporaries churn out the same old same old, book after book. Moriarty's exploration of a road less travelled, at least in genre terms, is the making of this novel.

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