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The stress, rivalry and anxiety of tangled female friendships

Fiction: You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here

Frances Macken

Oneworld, 288 pages, hardback €16; Kindle £1.99

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Unnerving tale: Jane Casey is finishing a standalone novel before returning to Maeve Kerrigan. Photo by Annie Armitage

Unnerving tale: Jane Casey is finishing a standalone novel before returning to Maeve Kerrigan. Photo by Annie Armitage

You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken

You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken

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Unnerving tale: Jane Casey is finishing a standalone novel before returning to Maeve Kerrigan. Photo by Annie Armitage

Three is the magic number. At the very least, a trio of girls provides a rich psychological seam for a writer. Two are always closer within the triangle; there's always one who is just there by the skin of her teeth. A friendship of three often amounts to power struggles and fragility especially when one - in this case, the alpha Evelyn - is prone to giving strength, then stealing it away when she feels like it. And when you live in a small town like Glenbruff, friendships are founded less on simpatico and more on geographical proximity.

"I suppose there aren't many children along our road, so there isn't much choice," our young narrator Katie notes from the outset, referring to Evelyn and Maeve, of whom she is slightly less enamoured. "We carry on as we are… that's not to say that I couldn't make nicer or better friends in another place, but how would I ever know the difference."

As Katie, Evelyn and Maeve grow and in time make plans to leave their small town, Mayo author Frances Macken turns their bizarre love-triangle inside out to reveal a satisfying and compelling dynamic. Few writers have articulated the intricacies of female friendship - the dependency, the uncertainty, the fragility, the pecking order - with as much authority. Most female readers (and quite a few male readers, come to think of it) are likely to squirm at the glorious recalling of these adventurous, curious girls and their nascent friendships. And while Katie is the story's ostensible centre, the reader's heart is often likely to be pulled towards Maeve. She might be the "sort of a girl who reminds the teacher when she forgets to give us homework", but we also learn that she's an adopted only child trying hard to fit in.

If three is a crowd, four amounts to mayhem. Pretty, talented Pamela Cooney arrives into Glenbruff from Dublin, and instantly captivates the attentions of everyone, including the boys. It's a wonderful kind of chaos for Maeve and Katie, although Evelyn is not best pleased at having her position as 'leader' upended. Pamela's not around for long, but she's there long enough to make a mark on the town, and on the girls.

Already, Macken's assured debut has drawn comparisons to Sally Rooney's Normal People and Michelle Gallen's Big Girl, Small Town. 'The New Sally Rooney' is fast becoming publishing's most poisoned chalice for a young and promising writer; a lazy and unjust reference point that often amounts to little more than wishful marketeer spin. But it's worth pointing out that Macken commands the same fine grasp of interiority that Rooney does. Where Normal People was a forensic look at a friendship, and then a romance, You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here follows a similar trajectory. Katie has to learn to find her place in the world when she moves to Dublin and forges her way in the film industry there (a dream, incidentally, that Evelyn has also long held, and has the financial means to pursue). Equally, Macken writes superbly of the anxieties of finding a place to land in one's twenties. Katie's return to Glenbruff from the city is already a careworn trope in Irish literature: has she changed, or is it everyone else that has changed in the one place that is supposed to never change? It's a question tackled by too many writers to mention, but in any case, Macken steers this into safe territory.

The book is finely realised and admirably complex, but not without imperfection. Pamela's fate is never truly resolved, despite the tantalising drip-feeding of clues.

Yet this is easily forgiven, as Macken has delivered a debut bursting with heart. Katie, Evelyn and Maeve's tangled friendships are blotchy with anxiety, rivalry and stress, and each girl is flawed in her own way. Still Macken's natural warmth as a writer turns their trials and uncertainties into a companionable read.

Indo Review