Entertainment Book Reviews

Sunday 9 December 2018

Voice for feminism unravels a woman's degrading sexual relationship

Fiction: Almost Love, Louise O'Neill, Riverrun, €15.99

Almost Love
Almost Love

Margaret Madden

Louise O'Neill has earned the reputation of being one of Ireland's leading feminist voices.

The author bounded on to the fiction scene with her 2014 young adult debut, Only Ever Yours, set in a dystopian world where females are raised purely to please men. Comparisons were drawn to Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, and inspired many a teenager to find solace in the world of fiction.

O'Neill then grabbed the attention of a wider audience with the 2015 release of Asking For It, a fictional look at the rape of an 18-year-old girl at a house party and how her attackers were afforded more sympathy from the community than the actual victim. Readers all over the country called for the book to become essential reading material for teenagers as the issue of consent became a much-needed conversation.

Almost Love is O'Neill's first adult novel although it becomes apparent, very early on, that her 27-year-old protagonist is not what you would consider a grown-up.

Sarah is living with her partner, Oisin, in the Booterstown house that his mother is paying for. The novel opens with her staring at his sleeping face on the pillow beside her: "This is it, she thought as she looked at his face, his slack-jawed, drooling mouth. This is the man I'm going to spend the rest of my life with." This is her thinking with an endearing irony. It is noted with slight repulsion and is the beginning of many such thoughts. Sarah is not a likeable character. Readers of Asking For It will be familiar with this approach and may even expect some jarring behaviour. The story alternates between the present and the past, where we learn of Sarah's graduation from art college; her failure to become successful as an artist; her fragile relationship with her father; her disdain at her rural Tipperary roots and her one-sided affair with Matthew, a man who is 20 years her senior.

Juxtaposed against Sarah's current relationship with Oisin, the time (or lack thereof) that she spends with Matthew is riddled with degrading sexual encounters, his repetitive disrespect, and her constant search for affirmation. Sarah's childhood grief is addressed, perhaps to garner some sympathy for her (frankly cruel) behaviour to all those who she should hold dear: "She will never recover from that. She will be selfish and stupid and she will make bad choices. She will let men take her body and use it as they please."

This may have worked better had the narrative shown inklings of maturity, of which there were scant few. An unlikeable character can sometimes be the making of a novel but this one struggled to gain traction, despite some great writing: "He wanted me to move home and meet a man like him and live a life like his, a life that would make more sense to him. My father seemed destined to be surrounded by women he was unable to understand."

An uncomfortable yet plausible portrayal of self-doubt and insecurity.

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