Saturday 10 December 2016

Sweet serenade for a fish out of water

Fiction: Lyrebird, Cecelia Ahern, Harper Collins, hdbk, 432 pages, €16.99

Tanya Sweeney

Published 30/10/2016 | 02:30

Whimsical return: Cecelia Ahern successfully dabbled with a dystopian drama for her Young Adult debut, Flawed, earlier this year. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Whimsical return: Cecelia Ahern successfully dabbled with a dystopian drama for her Young Adult debut, Flawed, earlier this year. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Lyrebird by Cecelia Ahern

Cecelia Ahern's 14th novel may not be bitingly modern, but she combines a delicious cosiness with her talent for supreme storytelling.

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Never let it be said that Cecelia Ahern has ever been short on big ideas. The high-concept, elevator-pitch plot has long been the Dubliner's stock in trade.

Opinion has often been divided as to just how big the chasm between idea and execution has been in Ahern's work down the years. But as she becomes more assured of her writing voice, the gap has narrowed. The nucleus of a simple, genius idea is often still there, but as evidenced in her last novel, The Marble Collector, she has toyed with narrative structure (one character's story, for instance, unfolds in a single day). As the years have passed, many of Ahern's characters have certainly become more vivid and complex; the storylines that bit more meandering.

Her YA debut earlier this year, Flawed, was a move in a rather different direction: towards offbeat, dystopian drama. It was gratifyingly packed with twists and detail; a harbinger of a dark and murky future. Arguably, it was one of her best yet.

Has she benched the whimsical charm from her earlier works? Not quite. All the while, Ahern has never lost her deft touch for either high emotion or sweetly magical realism.

And so to her 14th novel, where the action is transported, initially, to the beautiful wilds of West Cork; specifically, the hamlet of Gougane Barra. It's the sort of seemingly placid landscape, populated by compelling old-world characters, that has drawn the attention of a documentary crew.

Solomon and Bo - award-winning filmmakers, and lovers - are already familiar with the area as they recorded a documentary on two 70-year-old bachelor farmers some time ago. This time, they return for a sad footnote; one of the brothers has died and they're here to film his funeral.

Jet-lagged and jaded, Solomon is trailing behind his colleagues as they walk through the forest one afternoon, and he comes across a strange but beautiful figure, the way you do. With her white-blonde hair and green eyes, the mysterious, delicate creature smiles and the spell is duly cast.

An immediate connection, granted, yet there's something to her that's also literal music to the sound recordist's ears; the sheltered Laura can mimic sounds that she is barely aware she is making. The crew promptly nickname her Lyrebird, and it transpires she is the secret child of the recently deceased bachelor brother. Perfect fodder, in other words, for a documentary of her own.

Desperate to hold on to the connection he can't quite yet act on, Solomon agrees when Bo decides to bring her to the city and make a film about her. Laura is as fragile as bone china, though she appears willing enough to leave her old life in West Cork behind, as long as she can be near new friend Solomon.

Public interest in Lyrebird soon starts to swell. Interviews, PR meddling and a talent show, Starrquest, are thrown into the mix, causing complications for all involved. Suffice to say, it's as far from the calm isolation of West Cork as it's possible to get. Ahern's use of the fish-out-of-water device is somewhat canny, and the juxtaposition of small-town Ireland and the bustle of the city gives the book a dash of tension.

In addition to her 14 novels, Ahern has enjoyed a parallel career as an industrious screenwriter (including, notably, work on German soap My Whole Half Life), and it shows. Displaying a canny knack for the visual, Ahern sets her scene with vivid detail, keen to shunt the action right along.

And then, there are the times where Ahern occasionally makes a vain grab for the lyrical. There is, in every work of fiction, a high-wire feat between prose that is enjoyable in its own right, versus that which carries the plot along. So, too is there a fine line to be divined between dramatic tension and a plot that cracks on at a rate of knots. Ahern just about keeps on the right side of both.

A few minor details clunk and fall flat (for some reason, the name of Starrquest's spin-off show, Come & Have a Go If You Think You're Hard Enough, rankled). A small sticking point, granted, but one that might have benefited greatly from a tune-up.

While Bo and Solomon are often middling characters - she, the ambitious media player; he the passive love-struck one - it's down to Laura, the Lyrebird, to give the reader someone to root for. And as characters go, the gentle Laura and her journey (both emotional and geographical) is the book's great stab at a heart-rending tale. Laura is mystical, a thing of beauty, bravery and courage. Her backstory - and the circumstances under which she ended up in the cottage on the bachelor brothers' land - unfurls nicely.

Whatever about bird sounds, Laura has also mastered that most typical of Ahern heroine feats: the plink-plink of heartstrings.

There is the odd passage of Lyrebird that doesn't ring organic. Yet for its shortcomings, Lyrebird will cement Ahern's cast-iron reputation as a supreme storyteller.

This isn't sassy or bitingly modern, but rather gentle and warming. Despite its modern setting, Cecelia isn't changing her tune in a bid to lure in the Insta generation. Rather, the author's delicious cosiness will endear her to her many fans.

Will her detractors and cynics be stirred? It's hard to say. Still, credit where credit is due, for she is sticking to what she knows. And strangely, her latest book is all the better for it.

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