Monday 19 March 2018

Review: The Better Half by Sarah Harte

Penguin Ireland, €14.99, Paperback

It's said that you should always write about what you know and Sarah Harte, the latest darling of the Irish female literary scene, has done just that.

For the uninitiated, Harte is the wife of entrepreneur Jay Bourke, the celebrity restaurateur, publican and hotelier. The couple would have wined and dined with Ireland's biggest names during the country's short-lived high times. It is this era, or rather the end of it, that Harte has chronicled in her debut novel, The Better Half.

Bourke opened some of the country's coolest spots, including The Globe bar, Eden restaurant and Bellinter House. They symbolised a more confident Ireland, a country that had money and wasn't afraid to spend it on chasing elusive style.

I've always had a soft spot for Bourke; my old credit-card bills will attest to many nights spent in his nightspots. So it came as a shock to discover that he, too, was suffering as the downturn began to bite.

Harte has acknowledged that while she was writing the book, their financial circumstances began to change and she felt she should be helping her husband.

"I should be out working and bringing in money to take the pressure off him because it was intensifying," she said. "I'd have mini-meltdowns because I was so worried about the book. He told me I was taking a big risk but I had to go with it. I had to stay the course and not lose my bottle."

She shouldn't worry too much though. Her book will undoubtedly pay a few bills as many of Ireland's movers and shakers will be curious about the result of Harte's endeavours.

The Better Half is the tale of Anita and Frank, a couple who encapsulate the boom times. Frank is a developer, Anita a lady who lunches -- but, of course, doesn't actually eat.

As the story opens, the gloss is starting to fade on their seemingly stylish life. Frank is under pressure from the banks, and Anita discovers that her boorish husband is about to have a child with a woman only six years older than their daughter.

A reader may be forgiven for assuming that the novel is autobiographical, but Harte is quick to deny any similarities between herself and Jay, and Frank and Anita.

"Jay has lost businesses and he's lost money, so he's had a difficult time and I'll draw that analogy," she said. "But I'm not Anita. Obviously, Jay has had a hard time and I've been able to tap into that . . . there are certain experiences I've been privy to and things I've seen and conversations I've overheard from peers and acquaintances. But none of my friends are in this book."

She should be extremely grateful for that. The empty world Harte has conjured up is shallow, snobbish and cold, fuelled by greed and gossip. Her creations may have money, at least for the first few chapters, but they seem to have little else in their lives.

The blurb for The Better Half boasts that it will feature "enough salacious gossip about the Dublin smart set to give the National Enquirer a run for its money".

It probably is intriguing for those who ran in such circles to try to equate Harte's characters with their acquaintances, but her insights into that world aren't terribly earth-shattering for the rest of us.

Anyone with the slightest interest in current affairs won't be too shocked to discover that society queens yearn to outdo their so-called friends, and that friendship is a movable commodity.

It's a shame that Harte's book wasn't published sooner. Her revelations would have been more interesting in a time before the IMF came in and the first of the austerity Budgets took its toll on the masses.

Then, the activities of the selfish set may have been more alluring.

Now, like Harte's characters, we've all moved on.

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