Tuesday 20 February 2018

A provocative page-turner far ahead of the herd

Fiction: The Cows, Dawn O'Porter, HarperCollins, €11.99

Dawn O'Porter 'confident, funny and frank'
Dawn O'Porter 'confident, funny and frank'

Claire Coughlan

Popular women's fiction is constantly evolving to suit the changing needs and interests of its readers. Long gone are the pre-crash days of pink, glittery covers with stilettos or champagne flutes on the covers. Today's readers seem to want more relatable settings and characters, and a plot with a bit of bite to its centre. Sharp twists and a few surprising turns added to the mix don't hurt either.

More often than not, however, something that's 'on message' goes down a treat for the discerning millennial audience - think of the recent success of authors like Louise O'Neill, for starters, whose two novels to date have tackled important issues like rape culture and body image.

Step forward Dawn O'Porter, who already has a sizeable following here and in the UK, thanks to her profile as a TV presenter, podcaster, Glamour magazine columnist, designer and children's author. (She's also married to Irish actor Chris O'Dowd)

O'Porter's first two novels, Paper Aeroplanes and Goose, were aimed at young adults. Both were critically acclaimed and Paper Aeroplanes was shortlisted for the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize.

Undoubtedly, the original fans of the first two books will be eager (and, crucially, now old enough) to get their hands on The Cows, O'Porter's first novel for adults.

The story introduces the lives of three seemingly unconnected women, who are all fighting their respective different-yet-similar personal battles.

There's 42-year-old Tara, a TV executive, who is the mother of a six-year-old daughter.

Tara is a tough cookie - she has to be in her cut-throat, one-of-the-lads work environment - but she's looking for the right man, and one night, early in the book, she thinks she might have found him.

There's Cam, a 36-year-old blogger and online 'influencer', who has built up her own mini empire from her kitchen table.

She's opinionated - especially on the subject of wanting to remain child-free by choice - but away from her keyboard, communications don't run quite as smoothly.

Finally, there's Stella, a twentysomething PA, who is grieving the deaths of her twin sister and her mother, having lost them both to cancer.

Stella is also coming to terms with the very real possibility that her own health may be at risk due to a BRCA-gene mutation and she must get regularly monitored and screened, all of which takes its toll on her relationships and mental health.

The plot then juts off on a surprising right angle, when Tara is filmed in a compromising position on a train. The footage is immediately uploaded to YouTube and, naturally, it goes viral within a matter of hours. Tara becomes a very reluctant media sensation, complete with vicious online trolls and shaming think pieces about her in national newspapers.

The three women come into each other's orbit as a result and it all unfolds from there at a frenetic pace, with the main prose interspersed by frequent blog posts, emails, tweets and texts.

The initial set-up of 'three women in the city' might sound like predictable territory for the genre, but O'Porter's delivery is everything - confident, funny and frank. She manages to put a completely fresh spin on a familiar genre - it's no-holds-barred and deliciously cheeky, which should delight her existing legion of fans, while also winning her squillions of new ones.

This approach instantly marks out The Cows as more than an entertaining page-turner - it simultaneously manages to provoke and challenge preconceptions without being preachy. Unsurprisingly the novel has its own hashtag - which is the apt #DontFollowTheHerd.

Expect to see lots of debate on social media, and as for the book itself - it's sure to be scattered over countless beach towels and sun loungers this summer.

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