The Flatshare: Rental crisis love story makes for a charming debut
Fiction: The Flatshare
Quercus, paperback, 391 pages, €14.99
For some readers, the premise of Beth O'Leary's debut may require a certain suspension of disbelief, though perhaps not for anyone familiar with the Dublin rental market. After being dumped by her boyfriend, Tiffy is in urgent need of a new flat, but her minimum-wage job at a niche London publishing house puts her in a tight spot. When she sees an unusual ad for a flatshare - or, more accurately, a bedshare - she grimly considers it.
The ad was posted by Leon, a palliative care nurse from Cork. Leon is stuck for money, too, as he's footing the legal bills for his wrongfully imprisoned brother Richie. His solution is to let out his one-bedroom flat while he's working night shifts and on weekends, when he stays with his girlfriend. As long as the tenant clears out from 9-5, so he can catch up on sleep, the flat is all theirs for £350 a month.
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Kay, Leon's chilly girlfriend, agrees to the set-up on condition that all arrangements regarding the flat go through her, so that Leon and his tenant never meet. The boisterous and eccentric Tiffy, Kay decides, is not a threat. She snidely refers to her as "larger than life", which Leon translates as "Kay-speak for overweight".
It's not long before Tiffy and Leon are leaving each other notes, discussing everyday admin such as bin days, leftover dinners and stress-baked treats. The notes pile up, and Tiffy's tendency to overshare leads the restrained Leon to open up. The two gradually reveal themselves and get to know one another.
The story is expertly paced, as Tiffy and Leon's eventual meeting is postponed time and again. O'Leary ramps up the anticipation with a couple of close calls, until they finally come face-to-face in a perfectly-pitched, spectacularly awkward and very funny first encounter. The sexual tension only builds from there, and their romance is a slow burn that manages to overcome some impressively handled obstacles.
In striving to move on from the collapse of her previous relationship, Tiffy comes to realise that it wasn't a healthy one. She must grapple with the lingering effects of her ex's controlling behaviour, and the novel offers a sensitive portrayal of psychological manipulation, gaslighting and stalking, as Tiffy discovers the challenges of breaking a pattern of abuse and the complex process of recovery. Leon, meanwhile, tries to strike a balance between his brother's legal appeal and his draining shifts at the hospital, eschewing time with his girlfriend in pursuit of the long-lost love of one of his elderly patients.
The chapters alternate between Tiffy's wandering narration and Leon's short, clipped sentences, although his taciturn writing style grows easier to read as Tiffy draws him out. Tiffy's cutesy-quirkiness occasionally grates, from her bright yellow tutus and hand-painted Doc Martens to the lava lamps and paisley bean bags she litters around the flat. She is, the novel is at pains to emphasise, big but certainly not fat, and, inevitably, oblivious to how beautiful she really is. Yet O'Leary ensures Tiffy is grounded and empathetic, furnishing her with a carefully constructed backstory and instantly likeable sense of humour.
The Flatshare delivers plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and a delightful romance (the Post-it notes come back into play in the heart-warming conclusion), rounded out by a strong supporting cast, especially Tiffy's friends and colleagues at Butterfingers Press.
There is something unavoidably bleak about the romanticisation of the housing crisis, although O'Leary doesn't entirely gloss over the less than glamorous aspects of Tiffy and Leon's home - the space is cramped, scarcely big enough to fit all their clothes and possessions, with disruptive, drug-addled neighbours and a balcony covered in bird droppings.
It's a charming and hugely promising debut. O'Leary is destined for big things, and The Flatshare will ensure she earns an army of fans eager to see what she does next.