Tuesday 18 December 2018

Extraordinary debut novel will have readers rooting for its fierce heroine

Fiction: Orchid & the Wasp, Caoilinn Hughes, Oneworld, paperback, 337 pages, €16.00

Poetic: Caoilinn Hughes's prose is image-rich. Photo: Daniel Mihajlovic
Poetic: Caoilinn Hughes's prose is image-rich. Photo: Daniel Mihajlovic

It's fittingly ironic that the first chapter of Caoilinn Hughes's extraordinary debut novel is entitled 'The Mediocrity Principle'. From when she is first introduced as an 11-year-old, the protagonist of Orchid & the Wasp sticks two fingers up to mediocrity and from the opening sentence Hughes's prose does the same.

Preternaturally intelligent and scarily determined, Gael Foess has adult responsibilities thrust upon her as a child. Her mother is an internationally famous conductor; her father - a brilliantly awful character - is a financier. They're both obsessed with success and their respective careers. They're rarely in their Dublin home and when they are present they engage in some fairly toxic parenting. Savvy and opportunistic though she is, Gael has an Achilles' heel: her brother Guthrie. In temperament, Guthrie is Gael's extreme opposite - sensitive, anxious and deeply moral, barely able for the world. An artist and a martyr, he is Gael's purest love and in many ways the heart of the book.

Orchid & the Wasp spans nine years - 2002 to 2011 - and several locations in Dublin, London and New York, as well as the first-class cabin of a transatlantic flight. Its episodic structure is as unusual as its protagonist; each section covers a day in Gael's life.

The wealth and flimsy unity of Gael's family diminishes with the economic crash and her parents' separation. She moves to London. Her mother loses her job and Guthrie becomes a single parent to twins, dropping out of school before the Leaving Cert.

Orchid and the Wasp
Orchid and the Wasp

Motivated by a desire to make her brother financially secure, Gael - an instinctive entrepreneur and con artist - embarks on a series of misadventures. She flees London and an incipient romance with her flatmate, Harper, and takes some of Guthrie's paintings to New York without his permission. There, in some of its funniest and most vivid scenes, the novel moves between the Plaza Hotel, the Occupy movement, a holding cell in a police station and a spectacularly pretentious Chelsea art gallery.

Originally from Galway, Caoilinn Hughes is an award-winning poet and her background in poetry shines through Orchid & the Wasp's audacious and meticulously crafted prose. It's a mesmeric, immersive, often hilarious reading experience, driven by the force of the imagery-rich writing and the cast of distinctive characters.

The structural choices do have drawbacks. Events that would have been more satisfying to read about in a scene - Gael volunteering at the Occupy library for example - are mentioned in passing or filled in retrospectively. Some jumps work better than others; Gael's mother's new partner - significantly called Art - is already a fixture when he's first introduced, which feels quite odd. Art is the least indelible of the novel's characters though a story he tells about an art scam foreshadows Gael's own plan.

Hughes's linguistic daring doesn't always pay off; occasionally a more convoluted analogy temporarily disrupts the story's flow: "The cashier looked at her passport the way a midlife-crisis-stricken-woman looks at a pregnancy test shelved beside menopausal bone density supplements in a pharmacy."

But Gael is a fresh and fascinating picaresque heroine - admirable, reprehensible, empowered, bisexual, containing multitudes, the kind of woman rarely depicted in fiction. She may not be likeable but she is so idiosyncratic, so outrageous and so completely herself that it's impossible not to want her to succeed, no matter how Machiavellian her outlook. Ferocious and ferociously witty, she strives to be more amoral than she is, to be - at least for a chunk of her early adulthood - more like her father. She's in conflict with herself and while that conflict impacts on her relationships it doesn't stymie her in the world.

With Harper - who knows that "no one will ever make of Gael territory" - Hughes allows for hints of tenderness, but only just. After Gael and Harper have sex, the language breaks up into shape poetry, followed by three lines that perfectly encapsulate Gael's ambivalence:

"She pushes Harper away.

She pushes her away, lovingly.

Forces her away."

Like Gael's more profound emotions, Harper is in the background rather than the foreground; Guthrie and Gael's mother are more central to the key themes. Asking complicated questions about meritocracy, Hughes explores the relationship between art and capitalism, art and ownership, art and authenticity, art and the gatekeepers of art.

In New York, playing the gatekeepers at their own game, swerving between havens of privilege and the grassroots movement exposing and challenging that privilege, Gael seems less incongruous than she does in Dublin or London. Her high-wire act is exhilarating to witness, as, throughout the novel, is Hughes's own.

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