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Scenes of a Graphic Nature: O'Donoghue makes space for herself with edgy and astute second novel

Fiction: Scenes of a Graphic Nature

Caroline O'Donoghue

Little, Brown, 352 pages, paperback €13.99; e-book £6.99

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Observant writing: Caroline O’Donoghue has an easy curiosity about love, lust, loss and losing one's way. Photo by Gavin Day

Observant writing: Caroline O’Donoghue has an easy curiosity about love, lust, loss and losing one's way. Photo by Gavin Day

Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O'Donoghue

Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O'Donoghue

Observant writing: Caroline O’Donoghue has an easy curiosity about love, lust, loss and losing one's way. Photo by Gavin Day

In the firmament of young Irish female writers, Cork-born Caroline O'Donoghue isn't feted nearly as much as she should be. Showing every bit as much mastery as doyennes of the commercial fiction form such as Marian Keyes, O'Donoghue delivered Promising Young Women, her fiction debut in 2017.

By turns fluid and astute, the book showed an impressive grasp on femininity and thrummed with a ticklish relatability. It was described as echoing the tonal urgency of Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Lena Dunham, probably doing O'Donoghue a disservice in the process. But no matter; with Scenes of a Graphic Nature, O'Donoghue is making space for herself, and not just as the new anybody.

Charlie (Charlotte) Regan is from Essex and despite having a father who is more Kerry than Skellig Michael itself, has never set foot in Ireland. Her father has been diagnosed with secondary stage four cancer. As an only child, Charlie is navigating this horrible new reality with her mum (English, but with her love of Tesco discounts and fine line in benign passive aggressive mothering, she could almost have sprung from Colm O'Regan's pen).

"My mum is the kind of person who is still very impressed by Sensations crisps, believing they can elevate any kind of situation to the status of informal dinner party among close friends," says Charlie.

Her life is standing still for a bit as she moves from her flat into her childhood home, although she passes the time recording her father's many stories, mindful that this could be a final opportunity to connect with him.

Coming from Clipim, an island off the coast of Ireland - and a fictional one - he is the sole survivor of a schoolhouse tragedy that decimated the island almost 60 years ago. The story becomes the backbone of It Takes a Village, a drama she and her best friend/fellow film-school graduate Laura are producing.

Laura's career is officially off the blocks; a natural mover and shaker, she is now working in TV and has, whether by accident or design, left Charlie behind. With Charlie's career stuck in the stalls, she begins to sell graphic images of herself to anonymous buyers - a way, she tells herself, to pocket a few quid and put her film degree to good use.

When the film is accepted into a Cork film festival, the opportunity arises for Charlie and Laura to travel to Ireland, where they explore the stories of Clipim that Charlie has heard for so long. Like many before her, she has an idea of Ireland fashioned from broad strokes and bad Guinness. Yet while Charlie feels a great affinity with the island and its inhabitants, the feeling is perhaps less than mutual.

"The difference between a funny story and an upsetting memory is how you shade it and here, the shading is just right," Charlie observes.

There is much going on here. O'Donoghue's second book is at once a victim and beneficiary of its own ambitious scope. As a second-generation Irish person, Charlie embarks on a journey of identity. Though Clipim's portrayal occasionally verges on the boilerplate, Charlie still has to bridge the gap between the fabled Ireland of her mind and the reality in front of her.

Underlying the journey is her father, who is close to death. The complexities of female friendship, the frustrations of a life on hold, family tensions, trying to land personally and professionally into one's life, an island with a dark secret. These are huge, messy concepts to begin with. O'Donoghue has certainly done her homework for the Clipim strand of the book, referencing the Deserted Schoolhouses of Ireland by Enda O'Flaherty and Do Penance or Perish by Frances Finnegan in her afterword. Yet the tonal chasm between Clipim's past and Charlie's present is possibly too great to fully bridge.

Pulling together these various strands with any sort of neat cohesion is an ambitious task, and O'Donoghue occasionally loses her grip on it. Yet given her naturalistic, observant writing, this scattergun approach to plot is easily forgiven.

She is a master of the Technicolor character, fleshing out even the minor ones with brightness and wit. Charlie's relationships with her parents are particularly well-sketched. As ever, O'Donoghue is impressive on the complexities of being a young woman and delivers this insight with lively dialogue and a droll acuity that occasionally calls to mind the likes of Nora Ephron.

"This book is about a woman who makes bad art because no one has the heart to tell her otherwise," O'Donoghue writes of Charlie in the book's acknowledgements. It's not something the writer will have to worry about unduly. Ambition and scope may sometimes get the better of her, but no matter. O'Donoghue possesses an edginess and a wry sensibility that, despite the book's dark subject matter, ultimately translates into something zesty and companionable. Her easy curiosity about love, lust, loss and losing one's way will doubtless leave readers wanting more.

Indo Review