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A ribald romp of navigating through societal expectations

Fiction: Adults

Emma Jane Unsworth

The Borough Press, hardback, 400 pages, €12.99


Emma Jane Unsworth: plenty of spiky, current humour

Emma Jane Unsworth: plenty of spiky, current humour

Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth

Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth


Emma Jane Unsworth: plenty of spiky, current humour

Women writing about their chaotic, uncertain and complex lives is nothing new. From Joan Didion and Nora Ephron to Elizabeth Wurtzel, many have spun finery from confessionalism and vulnerability. And once Lena Dunham - ostensibly their most high-profile successor - lit a torch and tunnelled a trail, dozens followed. The female character attempting to navigate her way through various challenges and find her place in the world is by no means a new trope, but it does feel that in the last decade or so, we've been inching towards Peak Trainwreck.

Many of these anti-heroines are starting to fit a rather uniform mould and possess a similarly solipsistic worldview. She is invariably fond of a swear, a shag and a boozy session, not necessarily in that order, and often with disastrous consequences.

She is usually deep in existential dread, sexual dysfunction, addiction, low-level mental health challenges and a general aversion to settling down and playing by the rules. There is often a deep-rooted hurt there that can explain away her more egregious behaviours.

Emma Jane Unsworth's Animals (later made into a Dublin-based feature film), was a novel written very much in this spirit, albeit one that also turned the nuances and complexities of female friendship over and over. It bore the hallmarks of several of its forebears. There was an almost smothering platonic intimacy between women; a character reluctant to let the party of youthhood end; a support cast of more sober/functional types looking on concernedly from the sidelines. Yet there was something in Unsworth's writing - coming from a place of authenticity and surety - that set Animals apart from the pack.

Her third novel, Adults, kicks off in a similar thematic vein, although this time, Jenny appears to have her ducks in a row from the outset. She's a columnist for a feminist magazine (an oxymoron, she feels), has a decidedly cool photographer boyfriend that others lust after, and owns her own house. Like most thirty-something women, she has a vibrant and active online presence... which is where the creases start to show.

If humans, as we've been told, use only 10pc of their brain power, Jenny spends about 47pc of her ruminating, plotting and fretting over her social media presence. To hashtag or not to hashtag? To like a colleague's every fourth or fifth post? To stalk or not stalk the influencer Suzy Brambles? "I am creating a social media post about a croissant that I am pretty sure will define me as a human," Jenny declares in the book's opening scenes.

It transpires, too, that things are not quite right with her boyfriend Art, while her relationship with her mother is on another plane of complexity ("I almost don't recognise her with her clothes on," Jenny says in the book's prologue. "Which is a strange thing to say about your mother").

All the while, her long-time friend Kelly is tiring of Jenny's meticulously curated online persona. And amid the low-level hum of social anxiety, Kelly's pleas for some quality face time from Jenny barely get a look in.

From Dawn O'Porter's So Lucky to Sophie White's Filter This, several novels have already honed in on the chasm between the IRL self and the online self. Yet Unsworth's is in a class of its own, pinpointing perfectly the discomfiting tangle between the person we project out into the world, and the sheer effort required to upkeep the charade.

For all her outward privileges, Jenny's constant need for validation verges on the pitiful. It doesn't take much to predict where this sense of terminal velocity is heading. No prizes, either, for guessing that many of Jenny's neuroses can be traced back to her relationship with her compellingly eccentric mother, Carmen.

Unsworth tempers any tonal unease with plenty of spiky, current humour. One friend of Jenny's is a very "Reply All" type of person, which is as brilliantly succinct a put-down as you're likely to find. A colleague, meanwhile, looks as though she has "spent a lot of time smoking on Spanish beaches". Unsworth has found her groove and has grown in confidence as a comedy/dialogue writer.

Often, the problem for a writer with exquisite comedy skills is reining things in. The temptation is often there to crank the wit and hilarity up, and so it goes with Unsworth.

Some readers might find Adult's humour slightly too rich, and knowing. It's certainly relentless, yet the quickfire one-liners are a neat reflector of Jenny's frenzied interiority, and her lupine hunger for approval. With a dusting of ribald wit on every page, it comfortably falls (for me at least), on the right side of entertaining.

Adults is zeitgeisty, and its humour couched in current argot. Will Unsworth's third novel stand the test of time and become a classic to withstand the ages? The jury is out. But like the works of Ephron and Dunham before it, a detailed look at how women live in the face of massive societal expectation won't fall out of fashion.

Indo Review