Thursday 23 May 2019

Flawed but vitally narrated coming-of-age novel

Wordsmith: poet Rebecca O’Connor is the editor of literary magazine The Moth
Wordsmith: poet Rebecca O’Connor is the editor of literary magazine The Moth
He Is Mine and I Have No Other by Rebecca O'Connor

Maggie Armstrong

This debut novel from poet and editor of The Moth magazine Rebecca O'Connor is set in 1990s small-town Ireland and anyone who has ever been, or known, a self-loathing teenage girl will relate.

Narrator Lani Devine lives with her boozy parents and her senile, poker-playing grandma. Her mother becomes pregnant, news which causes a great, almost Freudian shame and revulsion in this only child and pitches her in loneliness.

If you liked The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien, you will enjoy the passionate mood swings of this precocious teen. Lani finds fellowship only in her dog Blue, her best friend Mar and a mysterious boy called Leon whom she sees wandering the graveyard near her house.

"I imagined he was the type of boy," she writes breathlessly, "who felt inexplicably lonely hearing voices in the next room, or cattle off in the distance, or the sound of tyres on the driveway".

Safe to say, Lani doesn't feel she fits in. "I was frigid," she confesses. "And I hadn't said anything funny or smart. And I wasn't pretty like Mar."

Leon becomes an obsessive crush that leads to a relationship involving the kind of gropey encounters that would make you wish they'd thought of consent classes long ago.

This is the shame-ridden 1990s Ireland of fumbling in fields, school discos with priest bouncers, angst-ridden slow sets, peach schnapps binges, home phone numbers and handwritten notes to school-friends. If the novel had a soundtrack, it would be Nirvana, not the Spice Girls. And in the pre-mobile phone era, Lani and Leon communicate through love letters passed and (possibly intercepted) by not very sympathetic school friends.

The rumour mill turns, and we learn that Leon's family are marked by a terrible tragedy (the reason for his nightly graveyard visits). As a result of this tragedy, Leon is considered a "freak". He also behaves like a freak. In one of the more heart-racing scenes in the book, Lani finds out her teen crush has been watching her through the windows of her house.

Not much happens, however. O'Connor, an accomplished poet, paints a gorgeously dark rural landscape of laneways and graveyards and brambles, hay bales and derelict cottages, with plenty of room for ghosts to wander into the story and intrude.

One such ghost is Lani's aunt, Celia, who was given up at birth and raised in an industrial school. Celia has written a (fictional) book about a (true) event, the fire in the Children of the Poor Clares orphanage in Cavan in 1943, in which 35 girls died. Lani's narrative is punctuated by short chapters told in the voices of these girls. These outcast voices, set apart by a name and number - Denise, 12; Aisling, 11 - are alive and disturbing in their little revelations: "I eat the chicken's food sometime"; "I get up at five because I'm afraid of being hit".

The idea is that Lani has become fascinated with the stories of these lost girls, though it's possibly more that the author was so fascinated she had to include them in her novel. It feels like they should be in another novel. They don't particularly fit into the tale of a self-absorbed teenager in love.

O'Connor, who has authored the poetry collection We'll Sing Blackboard, has a clear and confident voice with ever-surprising descriptive powers, whether it's "dust-motes swimming in the sunlight" or a smoking schoolgirl "inhaling it like a deep-sea diver taking a final breath before plunging".

With more happening inside Lani's head than in the action around her, the novel is slow to get going. But its brisk chapters - a rare and welcomed formal decision - skip along nicely.

Lani is a likeable character who can be very funny. "I took to eating only rich tea biscuits - and drinking lots of tea, lots of milky tea," she tells us. "My variation on a bread and water diet. It helped with the emptiness in my head somehow, to feel my stomach empty too. I liked the black spells when I stood up too quickly. And I smoked as many cigarettes as I could cadge or steal at school. They made my head go like a hive full of bees."

She is also, though she doesn't know it, a poet. She "conjures" up a kiss with Leon: "It was like there were tiny droplets of water trickling over my skin".

This is a flawed but vitally narrated coming-of-age novel and it will be interesting to see where O'Connor goes next.


He Is Mine and I Have No Other

Rebecca O'Connor

Canongate, paperback, 240 pages, €14.99

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