Saturday 24 March 2018

Alluring tale without a happy-ever-after

Fiction: The Reunion, Roisin Meaney, Hachette Books, 353 pages, pbk, €18.99

Skillful: Roisin Meaney's plots are peppered with colourful characters.
Skillful: Roisin Meaney's plots are peppered with colourful characters.
The Reunion by Roisin Meaney

Anne Cunningham

It's school reunion time for the Class of '95 and sisters Eleanor and Caroline receive their invitations in the post. It's quickly established that neither sister intends to go and this novel backfills on the reasons why.

Eleanor's living in Galway and has become something of a recluse. Her teenage son has been troublesome in his new school, her husband's restaurant business is not going well although he's working tirelessly, running to stand still, and besides, she's doubled in size and is unwilling to let her old schoolmates see the extent to which she's "let herself go".

Caroline, one year older, splits her time between a village near Oxford and one near Naples. She owns a successful clothes design label and - as her final school year is one of intensely painful memories - she wouldn't be caught dead at the reunion. Plus, the recent events in her own life have left her reeling.

Although they left school in the same year, the sisters are not twins. Caroline was "missing" for a year and had to return to school to sit her Leaving Cert. She was missing because of an…er… "nervous breakdown" and spent a whole year recuperating in a clinic in Switzerland. No she didn't. But that's what her mother told the world when she packed Caroline off - pregnant after being raped - to a distant cousin in Oxford, with strict instructions from Mummy Dearest that Caroline have an abortion. But Caroline can't bring herself to go through with the abortion, carries on with the pregnancy, and has the baby adopted instead.

You'd think that giving away such an amount of information would mean you've got the whole story, why buy the book? But that's only the opening of the novel. All of this is discovered very early on. Such is Roisin Meaney's way with plots. They are thick and dense, immensely credible, populated with colourful characters and she can weave a plot back and forth through time with considerable skill.

Speaking of characters, the only character who I felt could have been more developed was the girls' mother. She did a terrible thing, she sent her daughter away at a time in her life when Caroline needed her most. She is a woman who is vain and vacuous but she's more than that, she's a monster. Monsters are made, not born, and I'd like to have discovered her reasons for not possessing a single shred of moral fibre. "The gossipy neighbours" just isn't a sufficient excuse, not in the 1990s. But maybe that's something for another book, a kind of prequel, perhaps?

In contrast, the mother's cousin Florence in Oxford is frumpy and batty and faintly bohemian, abrupt and kind and fearless. She has been carefully drawn and will be remembered affectionately long after you've finished this novel.

I liked The Reunion. It's a cracking yarn (and there's a terrible pun there, but you'll have to read the book to find it). Meaney can excavate the core of our human failings and present it to us, mirror-like, on the page, kindly showing us what we need to forgive, along with maybe some things that we shouldn't. But she doesn't seek to solve everyone's problems. Some people, in books and in life, are beyond redemption.

The nicest thing about this skilfully constructed tale is the fact that not everything is tied up with a bow in the end. Too much of a grown-up for the happy-ever-after, Meaney gives us an ending that's hopeful, that's getting better, that's finding its own fragile solutions. Which makes her utterly credible, utterly authentic and utterly irresistible.

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