Saturday 19 October 2019

Three Little Truths: Eithne Shortall swaps romance for suburban secrets in twisty tale

Fiction: Three Little Truths

Eithne Shortall

Corvus, paperback, 400 pages, €12.99

Uproarious Irish wit: Eithne Shortall. Photo by Colm Russell
Uproarious Irish wit: Eithne Shortall. Photo by Colm Russell
Three Little Truths by Eithne Shortall

Meadhbh McGrath

For her third novel, Eithne Shortall offers a departure from her previous titles. Following the romantic comedies of Love in Row 27 and Grace after Henry, Three Little Truths chronicles the lives of the women of Pine Road, a picturesque Dublin suburb brimming with secrets.

The novel opens with a quote from the surly Shay Morrissey, a long-time resident whose much-sought-after and closely guarded parking space has been dubbed the 'Occupied Territory'. "Blood is thicker than water, but neither's as thick as mortar," he says, an assertion that is immediately called into question in Shortall's account of fierce rivalries, shifting loyalties, twitching curtains and a collective thirst for gossip.

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The story follows three of the residents, and between chapters, Shortall includes excerpts from their neighbourhood WhatsApp group, a wincingly accurate portrayal of the passive-aggressive asides and micro-dramas that proliferate in any group chat. In this case, members speculate about threats to house prices, the garden rat epidemic and the new family that have moved in across the road.

Martha, her husband and two daughters have relocated from Limerick following a traumatic event, and Martha is struggling to adapt to her new surroundings - a problem exacerbated by the appearance of a "rape list" in the boys' bathroom at school, an incident that drives her teenage daughter to become a vociferous feminist activist.

Martha reaches out to her neighbour Edie, an eager-to-please young woman who inherited a house on the road with her husband Daniel. Edie longs to have a baby, but Daniel has suddenly grown reluctant, leaving Edie to worry that his brutally unsupportive family might have something to do with it.

In the meantime, she's keen to make more friends, and can't believe her luck when not only Martha but Robin, formerly the coolest girl at school and now living with her parents on Pine Road, extends an invitation to drinks.

Robin is just desperate to get out of the house, which feels increasingly cramped with her four-year-old son and busybody mother, as well as the persistent calls from her dodgy ex-boyfriend, demanding she provide an alibi for him. When she meets a new man, she fears she'll have to come clean about what her ex was really up to.

In its study of the dark side of middle-class suburban life, Three Little Truths has shades of Liane Moriarty, while the novel's humour justifies comparisons to Marian Keyes: if you're looking for Big Little Lies seasoned with some uproarious Irish wit, you'll find plenty to enjoy here.

Bernie Watters-Reilly, the high-and-mighty parenting columnist and chair of the school's Parents' Association, is a particularly diverting creation, along with her second-in-command Ellen, who simultaneously gushes over Bernie and hankers for her role as self-appointed neighbourhood leader.

The many unpredictable plot twists are nicely executed, and although the story takes a while to get going, by the final segment, readers will be gripped and shocked at each turn.

It all comes to a head at the Pine Road Easter Street Party, a marvellously extravagant event that comes with a three-page itinerary. The treasure hunt (for dairy-free, low-sugar chocolate eggs in gender-neutral biodegradable foil) is a riotously funny and thrilling set piece, as those "little truths" are finally revealed in spectacular form.

By the end, the brick-and-mortar bonds between the women have largely dissipated. The portrait of female friendships in Three Little Truths is a chilly one, and of neighbourhood ties, even chillier, yet Shortall delivers a surprising conclusion that is sure to spark lively discussion.

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