Wednesday 23 August 2017

Friends scattered in wind by aftershock of a single night

Fiction: The Privileged, Emily Hourican, Hachette Ireland, pbk, 416 pages, €12.99

Delicious passages: Emily Hourican has a keen eye for description
Delicious passages: Emily Hourican has a keen eye for description
The Privileged

Tanya Sweney

Female friendship is a great many things: complex, wondrous, imperfect, messy, life-giving. Little wonder that so many writers, from Emily Gould to Lena Dunham, have found it even more gratifying to tease apart and mull over than romantic love. And the topography of the all-girls school makes for a particularly gratifying place to base the action, as Emily Hourican has found in her debut novel. Certainly, these are all careworn literary conceits by now, yet Hourican has managed to breathe new life into them with a new atmospheric tone; one that registers close to that of Maggie O'Farrell or Louise O'Neill.

And so from the universal to the deeply personal. Stella, Laura and Amanda have the kind of friendship that, amid the bloom and energy of youth, feels like it will last forever. It starts under rather auspicious circumstances when Stella and Laura rescue Amanda from an uncompromising position outside a SoCoDu teenage disco. Despite this, Amanda's middle-class easiness and beauty, embellished by drug taking and the odd modelling job, immediately enthral Stella and Laura.

Buoyed along by clandestine nights of gossip and intimacy, the trio's bond is unbreakable through many of life's first milestones; first love, losing one's virginity, first days of university, and standing at the foot of a perilous career ladder. Like most teenage girls, they speak with a grandeur that shows that they believe the world to be at their feet. It's not an off-putting arrogance; rather, one that anyone who was ever young and brimful of self-belief will recognise immediately. And yet, the bond is broken in a single night, their friendships never really able to recover from the aftershock.

Some decades later, the three are approaching their thirties and have scattered to the wind in many respects.

Stella is a lawyer in New York, whose work is the only significant relationship she is interested in. Laura is a Dublin-based journalist still waiting on her first big break. The beautiful and damned Amanda, meanwhile, has fared worst of all, barely keeping her head above water emotionally in London, her finger ever hovering on the self-destruct button.

Not helping things along is her relationship with Huw, an upper-crust English charmer with every bit as much of an appetite for destruction as she does. It's a compelling, toxic twosome, and the way the relationship causes rifts with Amanda's family and friends is neatly encapsulated.

Hourican's career as a journalist, meanwhile, has afforded her invaluable insight with which to write Laura's narrative arc. The cut and thrust of the Dublin newsroom is laid bare here in all its grim, Technicolor glory. Yet any reader will be drawn into Laura's ethical quandaries and her ongoing career insecurities.

In her first book, How to (Really) be a Mother, Hourican already demonstrated an ear for the hallmarks of great writing; brave, naked truth-telling. While she doesn't shy away from the intimate truths we barely summon the courage to tell anyone about, Hourican has a keen eye for description, and delivers up some truly delicious passages. And, best of all, has perfected the high-wire feat between lush description and keeping the plot shuttling along at a pleasing pace.

As with most great writing, The Privileged packs plenty of truth and social commentary beneath its story. First World Problems, career anxieties, addiction, social climbing… they're all here. Will the trio's friendships last the test of time (and, for that matter, the test of several trials and troubles)? As with any female friendship, it's probably too complex to call.

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