Thursday 22 August 2019

The Women of Primrose Square by Claudia Carroll: A feel-good read with a big heart

Fiction: The Women of Primrose Square

Claudia Carroll

Zaffre, paperback, 416 pages, €14.99

Sensitive: Claudia Carroll's novel features a trans woman. Picture by Gerry Mooney
Sensitive: Claudia Carroll's novel features a trans woman. Picture by Gerry Mooney
The Women of Primrose Square by Claudia Carroll

Meadhbh McGrath

With her latest novel, Claudia Carroll returns to Primrose Square, an oasis of calm nestled just outside Dublin city. It formed the backdrop for her previous novel, The Secrets of Primrose Square, but for the follow-up, she turns her attention to a new trio of characters.

Fan favourite Jayne, the kind and considerate widow beloved by her neighbours, and Susan, the desperate mother grieving the loss of her young daughter, are back again, though this time in supporting roles.

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And instead of spreading the action across three different homes, Carroll places her three leads under the same roof.

The large Victorian house, once the grandest on the square but now falling apart, belongs to Violet, a bitterly angry old woman who spends her days writing incensed letters to neighbours who in some way offend her, but never steps outside the front door. Strapped for cash, she reluctantly agrees to take in a couple of lodgers to help pay the bills.

The first guest is Frank - at first, an unusual protagonist in a novel called The Women of Primrose Square. But at the end of the barnstorming opening chapter, we learn Frank is really Francesca, a trans woman hiding her true identity from her wife and two children - until she is outed in the most spectacularly public way imaginable, at a surprise 50th birthday party with all of her family, friends and colleagues in attendance.

To give her furious family some space, Francesca takes shelter across the road, and with the help of therapist Beth, begins the daunting process of transitioning gender, at the tidily named Transformations Clinic.

The chapters alternate between the cast of characters, and we also get insight into Francesca's wife Gracie's response to the dramatic change in their lives.

At first, Gracie rages that her husband would upend their family for what she considers a selfish lifestyle choice, but Carroll charts the evolution in her understanding, albeit without much subtlety ("Am I one of those vile people who bangs on about tolerance, but is abusive to anyone who doesn't conform to the norm?").

The second lodger is Emily, a recovering alcoholic who made a brief appearance in the last novel but here takes centre stage.

When we meet Emily, she's just out of rehab and feeling sorry for herself having to share a bunk bed with her nephew. After she steals money from his piggy bank, however, her sister kicks her out, and Susan, Emily's friend from rehab, puts her in touch with Violet.

Emily's brash personality doesn't gel with Violet's holier-than-thou attitude and strict notions of etiquette, but over time, the tension slowly starts to ease, as Emily sets out to make amends to her estranged mother and those she hurt when she was drinking.

Violet, meanwhile, must come to terms with a past trauma, and while we occasionally see her bonding with Francesca over home-cooked meals and chats about the royal family, or arguing with her old friend Jayne, she can feel isolated from the rest of the narrative, secluded as she is in her own home and saddled with a story that takes place largely in flashbacks.

There is a much warmer friendship between her two lodgers, particularly when Francesca comes out to Emily, who helps her to finally feel like herself. The novel's big heart, and the tenderness that develops between the core trio, is The Women of Primrose Square's greatest strength.

Much of the language around Francesca's transition is vulgar, and often upsetting. Carroll navigates this thorny issue with care, however, and is sensitive about the feelings of pain and loss a transition can bring about for the whole family, whatever their age. For a cisgender reader, it is likely to prove illuminating.

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