Monday 19 February 2018

Breezy debut that suggests great things to come

Fiction: Love in Row 27, Eithne Shortall, Corvus, pbk, 352 pages, €9.49

Eithne Shortall: in for the long-haul
Eithne Shortall: in for the long-haul
Love in Row 27

Meadhbh McGrath

The modern airport may not seem the most likely backdrop for romance - you're unlikely to strike up a lasting connection with the person in line behind you in WHSmith while you self-scan a bag of Tayto's and a copy of Heat magazine. But in the days before self-service check-in, airports held a certain mystique as travellers queued up at the airline desk, chatted to the counter agents and marvelled at the glamorous air hostesses and the novelty of exotic travel. Eithne Shortall manages to restore a touch of that sense of wonder in her debut novel, Love in Row 27, which unfolds largely within the bounds of Heathrow Airport and the skies above.

Following a security alert, self-service check-ins are suspended, and Aer Lingus worker Cora Hendricks takes advantage of the embargo to play cupid with unsuspecting passengers, seating them next to each other in row 27 based on details she gleans from their passports and social-media snooping.

Her charismatic in-flight colleague Nancy helps things along by priming the unwitting singletons with free drinks, and intermittent chapters chart the progress of Cora's matches. There's great variety in these characters, from Ingrid, a Swedish frequent flyer with a wobbly grasp on English colloquialisms that is sure to make her a reader favourite, to a young woman returning home to Ireland after seeking an abortion in the UK, to a pair of widowed passengers who reflect poignantly on life after the death of a spouse.

The action at Heathrow can feel a bit stagnant by contrast - airports aren't places we're designed to be for very long, and the feeling of an in-between proves difficult to overcome. There are some enjoyable set pieces stemming from one of the crew's participation in an Operation Transformation-style TV show, which bring Shortall's likeable cast together.

As a heroine, Cora is often too passive to engage the reader and is overshadowed by her more rounded colleagues, particularly Nancy. At one point, a character tells Cora: "You're a supporting character in your own life," which rings a little true of her role in the story overall.

Yet the matchmaking check-in attendant is an ingenious creation, and you wonder why nobody else thought of it before.

Cora, of course, hasn't got much of a handle on her own dating life - still reeling from a break-up in Berlin, she moves to London where she follows in her mother's footsteps by taking up a job with Aer Lingus and seeking distraction in her matchmaking. Her side project soon becomes an obsession that allows her to neglect her future career plans, her friendships, relationships and her family.

Shortall is particularly strong on Cora's troubles with her ailing mother, whose early-onset Alzheimer's grows progressively worse, and such heart-rending passages lend weight to otherwise light and breezy writing.

The romance plot offers up enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, and while it wraps up rather abruptly, the Richard Curtis-style dash through the airport in the final pages is a lot of fun.

An impressive debut, and one that suggests great things to come.

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