Thursday 18 January 2018

Review: Fiction: One Hundred Names by Cecelia Ahern

Harper Collins, €9.99, pbk, 336 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

Sitting pretty:
Cecelia Ahern
Sitting pretty: Cecelia Ahern

Many of the critics who doled out scathing reviews to Cecelia Ahern's debut novel PS, I Love You back in 2004 assumed she would be a one-hit wonder.

They were convinced that the then Taoiseach's younger daughter had received her million-euro deal thanks to, in no particular order, her father, her mother, her sister, Westlife and her agent Marianne Gunn O'Connor.

The book-buying public didn't care who was responsible. They were entranced by her idea of a dying husband helping his grieving wife to learn to live without him through his love letters.

PS, I Love You quickly went to the top of the Irish bestseller list, outselling Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. It stayed at number one for months on end and was eventually made into a movie starring Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler.

Since then, Ahern has become one of the country's wealthiest writers, selling 15 million books in 46 countries and is certainly far more beloved than her tarnished father.

Hers is an artistic tale of revenge and there's little doubt that her ninth novel, One Hundred Names, will be yet another bestseller, despite any critical carping.

Although her debut followed the conventional chick-lit structure, after the success of PS, I Love You Ahern devoted herself to writing grown-up fairytales that require her readers to forget all about reality and immerse themselves in the whimsical world that she created. It's the kind of the escapism that's essential these days and may account for her ongoing phenomenal popularity.

Ahern hasn't let marriage or motherhood (her second child Sonny, brother to two-year-old Robin, is only a few months old) stop her momentum. She wrote her latest novel while pregnant with Sonny and previously attributed her success to a passion for work, inherited from her father.

But another of our former Taoiseach's characteristics plays a considerable role -- the ability to connect to people.

Like many writers, Ahern somehow manages to tap into that universal desire for life-affirmation in her novels but her quirky approach differentiated her from her contemporaries. At least until now.

In One Hundred Names, Ahern again plays it straight. However, this seemingly conventional approach wasn't without its own controversy.

The book's main character, a journalist named Kitty Logan, has lost her job on a current-affairs programme after falsely accusing a man of child abuse and the station has to make a costly payout.

It may sound slightly reminiscent of Fr Kevin Reynolds' libel action against RTÉ. Prime Time Investigates had alleged that the Galway priest fathered a child with a Kenyan woman. The national broadcaster had to pay substantial damages and the journalist at the centre of the report -- Aoife Kavanagh -- eventually resigned from the station.

However, Ahern's agent has maintained that Cecelia had the idea for the book long before the Fr Reynolds libel action. And truth be told, this is only the starting point for Ahern's story.

Although she has forsaken magic in this tale, she continues with her usual focus on people who are on a journey of discovery, coping with some form of grief or loss, falling in and out of love and, thanks to a little bit of luck, finding what they really want to do.

In the days after her resignation, Kitty has become a figure of hate. Abandoned by her boyfriend, betrayed by a so-called friend and dealing with escalating harassment, she becomes obsessed with fulfilling her mentor's legacy.

The editor of a current-affairs magazine, Constance is suffering from a terminal illness. But before she dies, she tells Kitty that there is final story that she wishes she could write.

After her death, Kitty is determined to honour Constance's memory by completing this unfinished story. The files in her former editor's office reveal a single list of 100 names, and soon Kitty becomes embroiled in a race against time to prove the link between these people as she struggles to re-establish her professional credibility and her value -- to herself and to others.

Although the self-absorbed Kitty is not Ahern's most appealing character and the prose can be a little clunky at times, it's worth persevering with One Hundred Names.

The old Ahern magic is still there albeit in a different fashion. It's hard not to root for Kitty as she discovers the importance of lives beyond her own and learns to appreciate Constance's final lesson.

This heart-warming tale is quite absorbing and Cecelia's many fans will certainly appreciate its escapism as the nights draw in. Will it follow the same starry road as PS, I Love You? Only her readers can be the judge of that.

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