Tuesday 23 January 2018

Seeing into the future

Edel Coffey on how the latest novel from Cecelia Ahern is as eerily psychic as her last one

Recipe for success: Cecelia Ahern's latest novel is her tenth in as many years
Recipe for success: Cecelia Ahern's latest novel is her tenth in as many years
Cecelia Ahern's latest novel

Edel Coffey

Cecelia Ahern's latest novel, How To Fall In Love, opens with a bleak scene. The setting is an abandoned apartment complex whose residents have been evicted for safety reasons. Christine Rose, a recruitment agent whose marriage is breaking down, is roaming through the estate, remembering happier times, when she comes face to face with Simon, a former resident of the apartment building. He is highly distressed and suicidal. She tries to talk him down but he kills himself in front of her.

The story instantly calls to mind the plight of the residents of Priory Hall and bears an eerie resemblance to the tragic case of Fiachra Daly, Priory Hall homeowner and father of two, who took his life earlier this year.

Yet Cecelia had finished writing this book and sent it to her publishers long before the Fiachra Daly tragedy happened. And this is not the only example of the story mirroring something that had yet to happen.

Later on in the book, there is a plotline that is almost identical to the 'Slane Girl' controversy of this summer, which saw a teenage girl at a rock concert at Slane caught on mobile phone video footage performing a sex act on a young man. That story became global news, trending worldwide.

And this is not the first time this has happened. Cecelia Ahern's previous novel, 100 Names, bore uncanny similarities to the Prime Time Investigates Fr Reynolds case that was raging in the news as the book hit the shelves. Yet that book had been completed long before the Fr Reynolds case emerged.

Like some magical plotline from one of her own books, Cecelia Ahern seems to have developed an ability to write defining Irish news stories before they even happen. Ahern was plucking these zeitgeist stories out of her imagination a year or more before they unfortunately came to pass in Irish society.

In Ahern's latest novel, How To Fall In Love, the story quickly moves on from Christine witnessing Simon's suicide at the abandoned apartment complex to Christine about to witness the suicide of another man. Walking along Dublin's quays, she spots a man clinging to the wrong side of the Ha'penny Bridge. It's a coincidence that even our protagonist finds implausible but she is determined not to witness another suicide and so takes action, hugging the man on the railings until he agrees to give her the chance to make him want to live again.

The man on the railings is Adam Basil, heir to the Basil chocolate empire. In 12 days, on his 35th birthday, he will take over the company.

Christine has until then to teach him how to love life again. And so begins a series of self-help-book-inspired capers designed to bring Adam back from the brink.

All the while Christine is dealing with her own problems and she is more fragile and sadder than even she knows. As she implements an action plan of activities to get Adam to re-engage with life, it becomes apparent that she needs the plan as much as he does.

Ahern balances the gloomy nature of her topic with Christine's siblings and father, an enjoyably wacky family that leaps off the page and one that readers will hope to meet again in future novels.

There are character tropes here too, however – the business nemesis who pops up in scenes like a convenient super-villain, the nasty one-dimensional sister – who end up feeling a bit creaky amidst the lovable, fully-fleshed-out characters of Adam and Christine and her extended family.

Christine's closest friend Amelia runs a local bookshop that is struggling to survive in the era of retail giants and online bookshops, which feels like Ahern's ode to traditional bookshops.

She splits her time between running the shop and looking after her disabled mother, which means she sacrifices a lot of the usual rites of passage, like travelling and working abroad. Naturally, this causes tensions in her relationship with her boyfriend.

With this character, Ahern subtly makes the secondary point of this novel – that is, we usually know the truth of a situation, deep down, even if we think we don't. Just as Christine has always known her marriage was wrong, Amelia too knows her relationship's problems are not caused by her reluctance to leave her mother in a nursing home.

One of Ahern's biggest strengths has always been her ideas, which won readers over and swept them along. How To Fall In Love is another charming idea, and a clever one too, as Christine's goal of getting Adam to fall back in love with life allows Ahern to place her characters in wildly unlikely situations because they have the impetus of their action plan.

It's nearly 10 years now since Ahern published her debut, PS I Love You and with her former Taoiseach father long-since retired and 16 million book sales under her belt, she can now safely cast off the perception that her success was based on her political connections.

This, her tenth novel in as many years, is Ahern's most mature book to date and, along with last year's novel, it marks a transition into a new phase of writing, which still has the trademark Ahern sparkle but is now more whimsical reality than fairytale.

Ahern's voice is now that of a mother and wife in her 30s and she is more confident to let her story stand alone, without the magical props of the fairytale.

As a result, How To Fall In Love may just win Ahern some new readers, if there are any left out there who have yet to discover just how good she is.

Irish Independent

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