Saturday 21 September 2019

Once, Twice, Three Times an Aisling review: Aisling maintains momentum in a brilliantly breezy read

Fiction: Once, Twice, Three Times an Aisling by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen

Gill Books, paperback, 288 pages, €14.99

Huge success: Emer McLysaght (left) and Sarah Breen
Huge success: Emer McLysaght (left) and Sarah Breen

Tanya Sweeney

There’s a reason why the fish-out-of-water comedy trope works so well. Take a character out of their normal environment and put them somewhere novel and incongruous, and your work as a writer is pretty much done. Either the character stays stubbornly or blithely true to their provenance, eliciting all sorts of ticklish tensions, or they will grow and adapt, which promptly gets the reader on side.

It’s one of the reasons why Oh My God What A Complete Aisling became such a publishing behemoth in 2017. A decade in the making thanks to a Facebook group that began as an in-joke, Aisling was the literary equivalent of lightning in a bottle. A twentysomething small-town girl trying to tick off life’s milestones and find her way in urbane Dublin, Aisling is a tremendous creation: fun, warm, charming, kind.

She has not been without her peccadilloes, either. Burritos are the height of pretentiousness, and not much more than a rice sandwich. She’s the type of person to put up laminated signs with lots of exclamation points in the office. She brings her gym gear to work in an oversized Brown Thomas shopping bag. She thinks that her trendy friend’s purple/silver hair is plain bizarre.

Aisling stubbornly refuses to kowtow to the notiony whys and wherefores of Dublin, and it’s why readers love her. Thousands of women see themselves in her, and Breen and McLysaght were hailed for creating an authentic, astute reflection of Irish womanhood.

Once, Twice, Three Times an Aisling
Once, Twice, Three Times an Aisling

And now, with this latest release, we are three books in to a mooted five-book odyssey. Is there still much mileage in Aisling’s warmly familiar ways, not to mention Breen and McLysaght’s effortlessly clever writing? Or is there a hint of diminishing returns, as might only be inevitable in a third outing?

Perhaps a little bit of both.

In Once, Twice, Three Times An Aisling, our heroine is as sensible, ebullient and human as ever. Dublin is a fast-fading memory, and she is back Down Home in Ballygobbard, making a success of her café, Ballygobrunch. Aisling’s mother, embracing a new-found entrepreneurial streak of her own, is doing a promising trade with her glamping/petting farm/artisanal produce business. Dashing British property developer James Spencer is still very much in her life, and rather promising that all looks, too.

The sizeable Las Vegas windfall that fell into Aisling’s lap in 2018’s The Importance Of Being Aisling has barely changed her. In fact, she has used much of it to pay for a platinum wedding package at the Ard Rí Hotel. Not for herself mind; for her hames of a best friend, Majella, who is marrying Tenerifian Pablo. Where Aisling thought she was once on course to marry, procreate and have road frontage at a respectably young age, now her friends are galloping the furlongs of life, and she finds herself lagging behind.

Aisling is nearing 30, and isn’t best pleased about it, but soon events conspire to overtake it as any sort of concern. Everyone around her in ‘BGB’ is grappling with something or other, and these collide in an almighty tangle of events in the last half of the book.

Breen and McLysaght have a canny knack of hitting on emotional truths with tender, unadorned scenes. A touching encounter between Aisling and her brother Paul at Daddy’s graveside shows a deft handle on how male mental health is regarded in rural Ireland, while a conversation between Aisling and James, full of home truths, is also slap-bang on the money. Her friend Sharon’s clap-back at Aisling’s Weight Watchers point obsession also pinpoints a home truth for many plus-size women, with brilliantly understated flair.

BGB, too, reflects a rural Ireland that has managed to escape that age-old, stuck-in-a-rut reputation. Its denizens are still parochial, predictable and nosey, but there’s an endearing energy and optimism in the air. They’re going to brunch, for a start.

Except now, amid a number of colourful local characters, Aisling is almost the novel’s ‘straight’ person. The quirky beauty of that aforesaid fish-out-of-water element has been removed, and Aisling is now a character who spends much of this book reacting to events around her.

Another iron-clad law of comedic writing is that jokes are prone to wearing flimsy after several outings. There are probably only so many times a reader is likely to laugh at mentions of notions, Xposé, That Bloody Cat or Weight Watchers points.

Still, Breen & McLysaght have hit their style stride, and OTTTAA ultimately makes for a brilliantly breezy, companionable read.

In any case, Aisling’s army of fans, several thousand strong by now, are hyperventilating at the prospect of new material, and talk of a film adaptation, at the hands of Element Pictures, is gathering pace. Suffice to say there’s plenty more life in the young girl yet.

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