Sunday 24 March 2019

A tale of toxic love

Fiction: Almost Love, Louise O'Neill, Riverrun Books, hardback, 320 ­pages, €18.50

Astute observations: Louise O'Neill relays the agony of unrequited house. Picture By David Conachy
Astute observations: Louise O'Neill relays the agony of unrequited house. Picture By David Conachy

Tanya Sweeney

Louise O'Neill's highly-anticipated first 'adult' novel suffers from a deeply unlikeable protagonist but is more than redeemed with superb pockets of relatable truths.

Fans wait and wait and then not one, but two new Louise O'Neill novels appear in 2018. One, a feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid entitled The Surface Breaks, is due for release by Scholastic in May. The other is ostensibly her first 'adult' book (although its predecessors were devoured by readers of all ages). Almost Love is billed as a portrait of obsessive love, and a look at how painful, debilitating and isolating toxic relationships can be. To call it one of the most hotly anticipated titles of the year is understating the case somewhat.

There are many reasons why the Cork writer, still only 32, has landed in publishing's sweet spot, beloved of both popular-fiction audiences and the literati. Her beguiling debut Only Ever Yours - memorably described as "Mean Girls meets The Handmaid's Tale" - hinted at a promising new voice in Irish fiction. Her second novel, Asking For It, a searing examination of modern-day rape culture, only served to come good on that promise.

O'Neill was hailed for writing "with a scalpel", spinning a keen awareness of the human condition into compelling and thought-provoking stories.

And so it goes with Almost Love. O'Neill takes a look at that most universal yet affecting of events, the love affair gone sour, turning it inside out so as to wring every trace of truth and realism. Certainly, most readers will relate to the predicament that Sarah, our protagonist, finds herself in. Once a promising artist (and graduate of the fictional, but evidently very prestigious Dublin Art College), Sarah has moved away from her widowed father and the fictional Dunfinnan in Co Tipperary.

In time, her talents and resolve to forge a creative career disintegrate in her hands, and she becomes an art teacher in a prestigious South County Dublin school. There, she meets Matthew Brennan, the forty-something father of one of her pupils. Sarah's professional brusqueness gives way to attraction, which shape-shifts into obsession.

Matthew, all told, is an unforgettable literary concoction. He is a weapons-grade brand of odiousness. Rich, successful and handsome, he hates when women get their period, has a predictable penchant for blondes and staunchly believes that women aren't, nor can they be, funny. He treats Sarah as a sexual plaything, resorting to meeting her in the same hotel room for snatched sessions of unsatisfying, selfish, passionless sex. Sex, paradoxically, that Sarah can't get enough of. He throws her measly crumbs of barely-there affection, which only serve to deepen her feelings for him. He uses and abuses her with an almost impressive ease.

Via entirely relatable text conversations, the reader watches as the balance of power tips away from Sarah. ("Sarah, I don't want to be causing you upset," writes Matthew in one. "Just tell me to leave you the hell alone if this is getting to be too much for you.")

The further Sarah gets in over her head, the more those around her suffer. Her father, Eddie, flawed but ultimately a good guy, bears the brunt of his daughter's preoccupation with her new life in Dublin. Her relationship with new boyfriend Oisin, who Sarah meets after the love affair with Matthew comes to an end, is also on shaky ground. One by one, she loses her good friends as she becomes more self-involved, spoiling everyone's plans and alienating loved ones.

Here is where Almost Love, on occasion, threatens to capsize. Sarah is a wholly unlikeable, passive main character, her baseline personality seemingly prone to snark and selfishness. She appears in thrall to SoCoDu's glitzy and vapid denizens and the social totem pole as dictated by celebrity magazines. Certainly, Matthew's success and wealth makes him an attractive prospect. This is not unusual for many women in their mid-twenties, but alas it makes for a vapid character with few redeeming features to begin with.

Her interactions with the creative leading lights of Dublin, or her friends back home, are lacking in warmth or charm. An unlikeable main character does not an unpleasant story make, but it is very, very, hard on occasion to keep rooting for her, or them.

Instead of buffing each line of prose to a high shine, O'Neill keeps her writing unadorned, letting the words do the truth-telling instead. Every so often, there are flourishes of poetry. Sarah's hometown Dunfinnan is described as "faded houses, dirt gathering where the paint was peeling from the walls. The sharp turn away from the town into the country: patchwork fields and open spaces… the abandoned washing machine, the ghost of laundry past".

Still, much of the book's heft comes from pockets of superbly relatable truths. "She felt the badness rise in her, a hungry thing," O'Neill writes. "She should have kept her mouth shut and her legs open, she should have taken whatever crumbs Matthew had been willing to give her and been happy with that. She had wanted too much and she had lost him."

It's perhaps the reader's own experiences with toxic relationship, and how keenly O'Neill evokes the exquisite agony of unrequited love, that will keep them turning the page to the last. And the aftertaste of Sarah and Matthew's flaccid, ultimately unsatisfying love affair will long stay on the reader's tongue. Still, as one of Ireland's most astute social observers, O'Neill reputation remains all but assured.

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