Sunday 18 November 2018

Roar by Cecelia Ahern: Magical thinking makes perfect package for this feminist call to arms

Fiction: Roar, Cecelia Ahern, Harper Collins, €12.99

A lively imagination: Cecelia Ahern. Photo by Steve Humphreys
A lively imagination: Cecelia Ahern. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Sophie White

Cecelia Ahern is arguably one of Ireland's most recognisable exports, up there with U2, Guinness and Tayto, her novels - 17 at last count - are beloved to the tune of 25m books sold world-wide and have been published in more than 40 countries. Ahern's formidable output appears to run on discipline and an apparently inexhaustible imagination; famously, she publishes a book a year, seemingly spinning the plates of promoting the last book while, plotting, writing and editing the next - oh, and that's not even touching on the TV work, did we mention the Emmys?

Her latest, Roar, is a collection of 30 stories of women - the protagonist of each referred to simply as 'the woman' - which Ahern, despite her track record, apparently had difficulty convincing publishers to back initially. The style - eminently readable, funny and quirky - is all entirely Ahern, yet the form and message feel like a departure for the author.

The contemporary allegories recall Ahern's earlier work The Marble Collector, in that frequently she takes popular idioms and expands them out into a wider narrative. The second story, The Woman Who Was Kept On The Shelf plays with that dated warning to young women to avoid being left on the shelf.

In Ahern's imagining, the shelf is cleverly cast initially as a pedestal from which the woman can be admired by her husband. As the story continues and the woman gets older however, it reverts to mere storage and a site of relegation. It's a wise comment, the simplicity of the narrative belies a very nuanced take on the reductive and limiting ways that being admired for the physical can be every bit as disempowering as being ignored altogether.

Roar
Roar

The book adheres to many tenets of magical realism - a woman's relationship is haunted by a ticking clock inherited from a relative and, in another, the woman is swallowed up by the floor in the middle of a meeting and runs into a whole host of other embarrassed women down there. The worlds are largely ones we recognise - the mums at the school gates, the office ­- with the fabulous elements introduced matter-of-factly by an impassive authorial voice. Historically, magical realists have often employed the form to offer political criticism and Roar is no different. Ahern weaves gender issues and cultural criticism into her fictions but always with humour and a pleasingly light touch. The Woman Who Was Pigeonholed is one of the funniest and thought-provoking of the book. A clerk is filing women away in a busy office. From their individual pigeonholes they protest. "I'm a fat feminist man-hating slut, I should be in at least four boxes!" shouts one.

Roar's arrival seems timely, offering a sort of Aesop's Fables for the post MeToo world, however Ahern's prescience is not to be understated given work started on the collection several years ago. Ahern's public persona is restrained, her early career was dogged by misconceptions and reductive responses to her considerable talents and sharp instincts for what a reader wants. Rather than excavate what is surely a fascinating personal journey - and the female memoir is very much having a moment currently - Ahern has given us her feminist war cry in the best way she knows how; intriguing characters, witty and wry commentary and damn good story telling.

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