Tuesday 18 December 2018

Hughes serves up funny, punny flash of genius with a sting in the tale

Fiction: Orchid & the Wasp, Caoilinn Hughes, Oneworld, €14.99

Orchid and the Wasp
Orchid and the Wasp

Anne Cunningham

For such a tiny island, flung westerly on the last European outpost and holding barely a handful of souls, we have produced far more than our expected quota of fine writers and we continue to do so. Then along comes Caoilinn Hughes and the bar doesn't get raised, it gets broken - smashed and smithereened - and all the king's horses and all the king's men...

Not since Paul Murray's Skippy Dies have I read such an original Irish novel, beginning as it does in middle-class county Dublin and never missing a beat. That said, the material for Orchid is closer to Murray's The Mark and the Void, starting in 2002 within the roar of the Celtic Tiger and closing in 2011, long after he'd morphed into a mangy alleycat and retreated down a back lane somewhere, whimpering.

Gael Foess (note the name!) is 11 years old when the story opens, her brother Guthrie 18 months younger. From the start it's obvious that these are the children of distracted, career-minded parents. Mother is a principal conductor with the NSO, endlessly touring, and father is a senior banker, a "money missionary" with a roving eye.

Being left home alone more often than is good for them affects the children differently. Gael is a sassy notice-box full of smart (and frequently very funny) answers while little Guthrie takes psychosomatic epileptic seizures, much to his father's embarrassment. His father does approve, however, of Guthrie's religious fervour. Jarlath Foess is nothing if not a stoic, pious, cheating, lying Irishman. By the "bust half" of 2008, Jarlath has already fled for London and mother Sive takes leave of absence to crumble at home, forget about paying bills and mourn her loss. Gael is the only force (Foess?) in this broken family interested in keeping things afloat. In a rare, lucid conversation between mother and daughter Sive says "...don't have me visited by social services. The mind is custody enough".

But, the reader discovers, this conversation precedes the arrival of Art, soon to become Sive's life-partner, "dancing whatever foxtrot, backstep or pallbearer's shuffle the mood required of him".

It is from Art - another punnily-christened character - that Gael is to accidentally learn the rules of art forgery. With the family home being sold, her mother suddenly out of a job and her teenage brother embarking on single fatherhood, something must be done by way of rescue and Gael's the only one with the presence of mind - and sleight of hand - to do it. Playing by the rules has not served her family well. It's time to employ some of her father's lying, cheating ways if she is to succeed.

And so this wondrous odyssey goes, from Dublin to London to New York, with Hughes taking vicious, gleeful swipes at every falsity, every delusion, every instance of breathless wonder at the Emperor's New Clothes than you could ever dream up. Once or twice the reader's imagination is stretched by the plot, but then again this is fiction. Dazzling, heady fiction. Hughes is an award-winning poet and it's barely concealable. She simply dances on the page, her imagination is riotous, her flawed characters have shape and colour and sometimes heartbreaking humanity. When I finished this book I wanted to return to the start. Immediately. Just to savour it all again.

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