Thursday 26 April 2018

Hennessy keeps the momentum going

Fiction: Nothing Tastes as Good, Claire Hennessy, Hot Key Books, pbk, 327 pages, €16.99

On a roll: Claire Hennessy is making waves with her YA crossover novel.
On a roll: Claire Hennessy is making waves with her YA crossover novel.
Nothing Tastes As Good by Claire Hennessy.

Ruth Gilligan

How we all rejoiced last month when Lisa McInerney so deservedly took home the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction. The bookies' favourite had actually been Anne Enright, the Laureate for Irish Fiction, and, of course, it is still only two years since Eimear McBride was declared winner alright of the very same award. So it is safe to say Irish women are currently enjoying an excellent run on the international publishing scene.

This run, however, is not just limited to adult fiction. Last year, the Cork trailblazer Louise O'Neill was crowned the inaugural winner of the YA Book Prize - a prize scooped up this year by another Irish writer, Sarah Crossan. And now Dublin-based Claire Hennessy is making waves with her wonderful new YA crossover novel, Nothing Tastes as Good.

The title calls to mind the infamous mantra of supermodel Kate Moss, "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels". Thus it is no surprise that Hennessy's novel is concerned primarily with body issues and young women's difficult relationship with food. What is more surprising, however, is the unexpected set-up Hennessy has devised to explore such issues. For although the novel's protagonist, Annabel, did suffer from anorexia, she passed away just three weeks prior to the opening chapter, and has now been sent back to earth to assist another young woman in her hour of need.

Before we start thinking of Annabel as some benevolent, eating-disorder-related spiritual guide, she warns us otherwise: "Don't call me a guardian angel. No wings, no heavenly music, no fluffy white clouds here - just me and the Boss… and an assignment." This sassy tone continues throughout the novel, allowing Hennessy to combine humour with hard-hitting realities.

Annabel's "assignment" is Julia, a sixth-year student and aspiring journalist who is not in fact skinny, but overweight (much to Annabel's disgust). Julia is struggling to balance her Leaving Cert studies, her best-friendship with Deb, her role as editor of the school paper, her feminist principles, her leering teachers, her unrequited crush and her hidden secret, until eventually her body becomes the target for her anxiety and self-loathing.

She spends her days working furiously, not eating, Googling everything from minister for education reform to calories in bananas. In an interesting twist, Julia also starts to discover things about Annabel, the quiet girl who used to be in their year, but who hasn't been seen in months. She grows more and more obsessed with the bone-thin face in the Facebook profile photo - the same bone-thin face which now hovers, just over her shoulder, whispering in her ear: "Julia, have you considered that you might have a bit of a problem with food?"

Despite their various troubles, sometimes Hennessy's teenage girls do sound remarkably grown up. I try to recall whether my 17-year-old peers and I spent our time discussing school censorship policies or attending Women in Leadership conferences. But then I remember that, thanks to the internet and social media - and especially, thanks to writers like Louise O'Neill and Claire Hennessy - these are exactly the kinds of conversations young women are having nowadays, and for that I am both envious and immensely grateful.

Hennessy's first novel Being Her Sister was published all the way back in 2001 when she was just 15 years old. Since then, she has published short stories, YA novels and flash fiction, taught creative writing, worked as the Puffin Ireland editor at Penguin and founded the amazing new literary journal Banshee.

This ambition and energy is keenly felt throughout Nothing Tastes as Good, a novel which yet again proves that Irish women writers are on a roll.

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