Tuesday 24 April 2018

Bittersweet and beguiling: what women want

Fiction

White Villa

Emily Hourican

Hachette

€16.99

Emily Hourican displays an acute insight into women who consider themselves better than other women. Photo: David Conachy
Emily Hourican displays an acute insight into women who consider themselves better than other women. Photo: David Conachy
White Villa
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

This is Emily Hourican's second novel and opens with a long contemplation of grief after the death of Natasha's diplomat-father.

Her relatively new friend, Jennifer, invites 'daddy's girl' to join the 'holiday of a lifetime' with fellow university students. It is to be the group's last blast before they are officially launched into adulthood. Natasha decides that she needs to escape her mother and her challenging sister, Nancy, and sets off for two weeks to a luxury villa on the music-bopping, pill-popping island of Ibiza.

Born in 1986, Natasha falls into the millennial category, sometimes known as 'Generation Me'. This generational observation is perhaps what makes the novel quite different.

The first part focuses on the personalities of the main characters, Natasha, who is beautiful and intriguing, the kind and thoughtful Jennifer, her brazen and beguiling boyfriend, Todd. A plethora of minor characters provide angles to what Natasha sees as the ring-fenced hordes from Irish private schools.

Without any backstory as to how these students could afford the trip, the loud and sweltering millennials get soaked daily on cocktails for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Like the author, Natasha was educated abroad and came to study at an Irish university. Feeling, thinking and acting like an outsider, she is constantly perturbed at the simple connectedness of people who grew up together.

Chapters are alternately narrated from Natasha or Jennifer's point of view, drawing Todd and the others in for dialogue. Nasty barbs prick each conversation within the group, focusing on the shallowest of human traits.

"The way Julie produced the most commonplace remarks, banality upon banality, quite as if universal interest in them were assured, astounded Natasha, who had been taught to work hard for originality, for insight, and to stay quiet if she failed to find it."

When discussing her ambition with Todd, both of them hyped-up on pills at a dance club, Natasha comments: "I think I'd like to specialise in something incredibly niche, like a small aspect of Italian literature. Or maybe art history… a vase or pot that no one else has bothered much with."

Sharing Natasha's cynical view of Irish private schools, Todd asks: "'You know why they say those schools are full of the cream of the country?'

'Rich and thick?' She was disappointed. She'd heard that before.

'Worse' he said. 'Clotted. All churned in on itself in a thick, unappetising lump.'"

Alone together one sultry afternoon, Natasha is melting with a hangover in the searing heat, with Jennifer out of the way; she is craving the lusty approaches of Todd. With an opportunity to escape the constant 'what am I doing here?' and fully transfer her self-obsessive indulgence on to him, Natasha stretches out on a sunbed, wearing her slimy green, lizard-print bikini, and initiates a twist that turns her life around forever.

Hourican displays an acute insight into women who consider themselves better than other women, and men who use them for any gain; a litany of jealousy, suspicion and underhand competition marks this novel as a psychological review of pathological characters.

In Part Two of the novel, 10 years after the 'holiday of a lifetime', the group has evolved and dispersed, some directly affected by the fateful period in the White Villa. Todd retains his classic narcissistic personality and his career success brings endless options, helped by his bullying and cheating.

The gentler and more caring individuals remain connected. But what of Natasha? Hourican's novel seems to question whether people can ever change, she concentrates her writing on each personality rather than plot, investigating how this particular generation will survive the everyday pitfalls of life, leaving the reader with much to contemplate.

Sunday Independent

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