Monday 18 December 2017

Review: Postcards from the Heart by Ella Griffin

Orion, €13.99

Claire Coughlan

THERE has been much debate recently about how modern Irish writers supposedly fail to engage with contemporary Ireland in fiction -- much to the bafflement of readers of crime and popular women's fiction, pre- and post-Celtic Tiger.

Modern Dublin looms large in the much-maligned "chick lit" and it has also, time and again, dealt with issues facing modern women that can often be ignored by literary fiction.

Ella Griffin's hugely enjoyable debut is no exception. Like her real-life friend Marian Keyes (who is thanked in the acknowledgments for showing Griffin's manuscript to her own agent at Curtis Brown), Griffin deftly mixes light and shade, humour and conflict: infidelity, divorce and illness are themes that are tackled alongside balloon rides, missing hamsters and laugh-out-loud descriptions of life at an advertising agency.

Like Allison Pearson in I Don't Know How She Does It, Griffin puts a fresh spin on the having-it-all conundrum of juggling relationships and caring for children and parents with the demands of a career.

The story in Postcards from the Heart revolves around four central characters: buttoned-up advertising exec Saffy and her vain soap-star boyfriend Greg; and gentle teacher Conor, who's writing a novel and creating a space outside his family unit, much to the annoyance and puzzlement of his partner, the beautiful and unconventional Jess. All Saffy wants to do is get engaged; while all Jess wants is for things to stay as they are.

Despite the interlinked storylines going between the four characters, we only really find out what makes Saffy tick -- the dynamic between her and her youthful mother and the secrets she's been keeping from her only daughter brilliantly played out and genuinely moving.

Greg, who works on a soap called The Station, about a group of horny fire-fighters (he is rarely seen with his top on), is hilariously drawn, but at times he strays into the territory of caricature and it's difficult to see what a grounded, no-nonsense career woman such as Saffy would be doing with him in the first place.

The Conor character is very plausible as the aspiring novelist and hands-on dad with his catch of a girlfriend. I felt, however, that Conor's storyline wasn't fully realised -- was he going to end up with Jess or not? I found that I needed to know. The character of Jess, meanwhile, seemed a bit two-dimensional -- I would have liked to have found out a bit more about her and her past.

Ultimately, though, it's Saffy's story and there were times towards the novel's denouement where I was moved to tears: Griffin's writing packs a real emotional punch.

Anyone in doubt about the engagement with contemporary Ireland in modern fiction should read Griffin's book. Dublin itself is woven tightly throughout the book's fabric -- it's so well mapped out that it almost becomes like a fifth central character. The recession is referenced a couple of times, but this doesn't stop the foursome spending extravagantly and getting into debt, which seems to be the least of their problems.

Sometimes, though, Postcards from the Heart is so contemporary that it hurts. One of Griffin's annoying (or endearing, whichever way you want to look at it) tics is her propensity to litter the page with pop-culture references in order to paint a picture. That is probably something that will lessen as she gains in confidence; she doesn't need to do that -- she's just too good a writer.

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