Thursday 23 May 2019

The Importance of Being Aisling: Zest, zeitgeist and plenty of heart ensures fun sequel is no rehash(ling)


The Importance of Being Aisling

Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen

Gill, paperback, 288 pages, €14.58

Huge success: Emer McLysaght (left) and Sarah Breen
Huge success: Emer McLysaght (left) and Sarah Breen
The Importance of Being Aisling by Sarah Breen and Emer Lysaght

Tanya Sweeney

If the power of comedy lies in the ticklish familiarity of truth, it's a no-brainer why Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght have had such success. Born of the Facebook community of the same name, their debut Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling! lit the blue touch paper, paving the way for a six-figure book deal and film adaptation.

Everyone knows someone like Ballygobbard-born, Portobello-dwelling Aisling. By turns ebullient, warm and notions-averse, Aisling is the girl in the office who organises the Secret Santa and chides wayward cutlery users; who secretly doesn't understand the grey-hair trend, and who baulks at any and all instances of someone being flaithulach. Irish readers are particularly enthusiastic about having their realities reflected back at them, and Breen and McLysaght's character study, pitched against a Technicolor backdrop of modern-day Dublin, was bang-on-the-money astute. Clever, without being knowing. Biting, without ever being patronising.

And so it goes with The Importance of Being Aisling, which comes in rather quick succession to the first instalment in the franchise, still on the bestseller lists a year on from release. But even in a character as formidable as Aisling, was there enough material for a fresh second run? Or was any follow-up destined to be a complete rehash(ling)?

The Importance of Being Aisling runs in much the same vein as its predecessor; something that should delight existing fans. Like that other mega-successful franchise, Paul Howard's Ross O'Carroll-Kelly series, McLysaght and Breen are sticking with what they know. Aisling is 29, still living with Dublin hipsters Elaine and Sadhbh, and back in the same cosy-but-complacent relationship with John. She has evidently gotten a handle on The Big Smoke, although events conspire to upend her carefully calibrated life. Her safe-as-houses pensions job is safe no more, as the financial climate wipes out her entire company. Elaine gets married to Ruby, meaning that she and Sadhbh may need to find somewhere else to live. With rents ever sky-rocketing, she and Majella decide to take an extended breather back home in Ballygobbard. But the road home isn't straightforward.

With her brother Paul now back in Australia, living with Mammy proves to be more complex than Aisling bargained for, while the shadows of her recently deceased father loom around every corner. Much as in OMGWACA, there is room for adventures galore, as well as the odd new character (Donal Shields, singer of The Peigs and Sadhbh's new love interest, is one such well-drawn newcomer). An inspiring trip to Vegas sees Aisling leap out of character (paying $80 for a fruit bowl in one instance), yet could send the course of her ostensibly predictable life careering in other directions.

Aisling, endearingly passive for much of the time, is forced to make some big decisions about her relationship, her friendships, and her career. Two books down, there is definitely a case to be made for an Aisling drinking game (take a shot when someone mentions Down Home, Going Out Out, or Weight Watchers points, and so on). But to dismiss this book as a satire that takes pot-shots at rural Ireland would be to miss the point entirely.

Breen and McLysaght's entirely authentic voice elicits a proper snort on every page, with the sort of wry observations highlighting how notiony we have all become that made OMGWACA a word-of-mouth hit (how a burrito is little more than a rice sandwich, and so on).

But in among the one-liners and the zingers, the book has more heart than meets the eye. Aisling's post-grief fog is particularly well-realised and touching, while Ireland's social and economic background thrums in the background, a character all of its own. It's likely that the series will run and run, and if Breen & McLysaght can keep things as zesty, companionable and zeitgeisty as they have done, they will be more than able to keep a bad case of diminishing returns at arm's length.

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