Saturday 22 July 2017

Review: You by Nuala Ni Chonchuir

New Island, €12.99

Hilary A White

If there is a hidden message to You, it is that you have forgotten more than you think about who you were as a child.

With 180 pages in which to do so, this slim edition supplies a pitch-perfect voice to the estranged youngster within each of us, the result being a quietly disarming experience for the reader. Don't be surprised if it becomes a talking point of 2010 publishing.

Nuala Ni Chonchuir is a unanimously lauded poet and short story writer based in Connacht. Her debut novel is a tale told by a nameless Dublin girl with much on her 10-year-old shoulders. As a story, it will stir up many dormant emotions and cause childhood inclinations to repeat on the reader like an undigested meal. As the latest output from Ni Chonchuir, it is another success from a writer who seems composed of something that literary awards like to be around.

The story is set on the banks of the author's native River Liffey, in a down-and-out Dublin that may hit a nerve or two in these climes. The backdrop is the summer of 1980, and our heroine -- known to us only by the odd nickname -- tells of life with her troubled single mother, two younger brothers and a handful of friends and relatives.

Alcoholism and mental fatigue see her mother become increasingly unable to perform her duties as principal guardian. When tragedy strikes, the daughter is forced to take on a new role, all the while trying to make sense of the situation from her own youthful perspective. As with all children (and some adults), she organises her world into teams, black and white, good and bad.

It's all told in the second-person (hence the title, one assumes). This is less of an irritant than it sounds, and comes to flow as steadily as the oft-mentioned river that runs close to their home. The author has described this style as being "close but at a remove". In other words, it allows deeply intimate episodes and feelings to migrate swiftly to the heart of the beholder.

Ni Chonchuir has packed her poetic and short story attire for this first journey into the novel. Chapters are short and fat-free. Sentences are direct and to the point, with only the odd flourish of descriptive beauty used. There is an economy to her prose that is refreshing. The overall effect is not unlike Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time, a work that is bound to be known to Ni Chonchuir.

In that book, nothing was dressed up or decorated. Messages chimed out clearly from the sentences, often with the effect of amplifying moments of an emotional bent with innocence and purity. Ni Chonchuir achieves the same gravitational pull here with just the stark, uncluttered reasoning of a child. Any child.

"It's gloomy, like a room in a scary film. So you turn on the light and shove the window open and start singing like a maniac to make yourself feel different, more alive. It works," the girl confides at one point. Didn't we all used to do this?

The second half of You is even more potent, and the ending should come with a flood warning and a pocket pack of Kleenex. You may curse her for nurturing the lump in your throat so surreptitiously, but she hasn't resorted to shameless weepy provocations. It's all done organically, the hand of the author combining with the reader's own sense of childhood nostalgia to create literary alchemy.

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