Saturday 18 November 2017

Impressive debut delves deftly into the zeitgeist

A gripping, well-observed slice of the excesses and demise of the Celtic Tiger, but lacks warmth, says Claire Coughlan

Claire Coughlan

The Better Half

Sarah Harte

Penguin Ireland, €15.99

'The rich are different from you and me," Nick Carraway remarked in F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. This certainly holds true in Sarah Harte's debut novel, which documents the excesses of the Celtic Tiger: a world of ladies who don't eat very much lunch, and its subsequent implosion -- where debt and despair re-inject a healthy dose of reality back into the Dublin 4 bubble.

Harte is married to restaurateur Jay Bourke and, for a first-time author, she has already received an inordinate amount of publicity for this book, perhaps because it has tapped into an inner-circle zeitgeist not yet mined in Irish fiction; a zeitgeist that is peopled by rambunctious property developers, coked-up trophy wives who air-kiss their dealers in petrol station forecourts and the tragic suicides of faltering businessmen.

This is the stuff that, were you to read it in a Jackie Collins novel, you might dismiss it as sounding far-fetched, but as we know from recent headlines, truth is often much stranger than fiction.

Anita Lawlor, the story's narrator, is the wife of Frank Lawlor, property tycoon from Offaly, who is fond of telling anyone who'll listen that he started his business with little more than a van and a ladder. Anita has defined herself as a wife and mother to their two grown-up children and she feels adrift in her life, drinking too much, competitively spending with her friends, who are also "wife-ofs".

Anita, who grew up in an inner-city tenement flat, is a former child-maths prodigy, but she has stifled her potential in favour of hiding her light under her husband's considerable bushel. When she finds out that he has impregnated a 25-year-old, her life crumbles, as does the economy, and she has to redefine herself, her values and her whole way of life.

Harte can certainly tell a story and Anita is, through her champagne and valium haze, a likeable character. Even Frank, her husband, with his chips on both shoulders and aggressive art buying, is endearing in the way that he is portrayed as a committed family man who loses the run of himself when he becomes successful beyond his wildest dreams.

The Better Half can be considered to be a comedy of manners, and a deft one at that -- as a satire, it is cutting and at times bitingly funny; Harte doesn't pull any punches with the characters, many of whom will make you want to play a guessing game to figure out if any of them have been drawn from real life. However, for a book to really transport me, I need to have an emotional connection to the story and this just wasn't there with the cast of characters in this novel.

Perhaps people who are part of that social set will be fascinated to see the fictional mirror held up to their lives and see the errors of their conspicuous consumption and social mobility reflected in the second half of the book, which features the downturn. But at times, it was hard to feel sympathy for Anita, as she reconnected with the caring sister she'd ignored during the good times and dismissed as common.

The Better Half is an impressive debut; it is a gripping, well-observed slice of Irish life and Sarah Harte has rightly been billed as "Ireland's latest sensation in women's fiction". Just don't expect the warmth you might find from authors in the rest of the genre -- Harte is more Candace Bushnell than Marian Keyes.

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