Tuesday 17 July 2018

Orphanage tragedy and fictional hauntings set scene for fine debut

Fiction: He is Mine and I Have No Other, Rebecca O'Connor, Canongate €17.99

He is Mine and I Have No Other
He is Mine and I Have No Other

Anne Cunningham

The prompt for this novel came from the fire in a Cavan orphanage in 1943 which claimed the lives of 35 children and one elderly woman. Documented in the book Children of the Poor Clares, it transpired that the children might have survived had it not been for the nuns' insistence that they could not be seen in their night attire. The orphans are buried in a communal grave on a country back road in Cavan, and Rebecca O'Connor has positioned her fictional protagonist's home beside this graveyard.

Lani is 15 years old when her dreams become haunted by the orphans who perished. She's also haunted by the sight of a young boy, Leon Brady, a boarder in the local boys' school who visits the graveyard regularly, alone and seemingly wrestling with his own ghosts. A relationship develops between Lani and Leon, one which is fraught with teenage angst and obsession. Lani's best friend Mar doesn't approve, leading to a prolonged falling-out between them. Lani turns to Leon for comfort but Leon is even more emotionally inept than your average teenage boy. He does, however, have his reasons.

When Lani's parents inform her that there's a new baby on the way, her world is shattered. She's been an only child up to this and she can already feel her foothold within the family shifting. A very intense bout of first love and an equally sharp attack of resentment towards her sibling-to-be leaves Lani reeling, all the more because she's not on speaking terms with her lifelong confidante Mar. Like virtually every Irish clan, Lani's family has their secrets. And in the midst of coming to terms with the impending new arrival, Lani stumbles over one or two of them. While wrestling with her own truth she is to discover that Leon's family secrets are far darker than hers, explaining in some ways his "odd" behaviour.

Rebecca O'Connor is co-founder and editor of The Moth magazine and has already made her mark as a published poet. He Is Mine And I Have No Other is her first novel and has been enthusiastically endorsed by Donal Ryan, who described it as "brilliantly done".

O'Connor certainly shares Ryan's authenticity in depicting a somewhat shabbier latter-day Ireland, remote and rural still in the 1990s, just before the internet and the visit from the infamous Tiger. The past here is definitely another country, yet it's instantly recognisable. She also captures, with uncanny precision, the sheer ferociousness of teenage desire and first love. Quick, snatched conversations between Leon and Lani, so full of passionate melodrama, could be almost humorous if they didn't remind us so accurately of how utterly consuming and exhausting the whole business was. One can't help but wonder: when does that gigantic bonfire in the belly cease and morph into a mere flame, or - how as we like to describe it - a "torch"? And, more interestingly, why?

It is also the secrets and the silences, those huge spectres that lurk in the shadows of our families and communities, keeping us close but also keeping us quiet, that are the very stuff of O'Connor's novel. Like they were in McGahern's novels.

An evocative, atmospheric and thought-provoking read.

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