Hilary Fannin knows how to pay attention. Her weekly columns are wonderfully distilled observations on aging, friendship, disappointment, endurance, hyperconsumption and, occasionally, her flatulent cat. Combining powerful understatement with fresh tumbles of words, she can be empathetic, wry, nuanced or wildly, hilariously incredulous, depending on whether her subject is Gwyneth Paltrow or an anonymous older woman humiliated on a stranger's whim.
A playwright as well as a journalist, Fannin has also written a memoir, Hopscotch, which chronicles a turbulent part of her childhood including the eviction of her family. While her relationship with her extroverted, irresponsible father is at the centre of Hopscotch, her first novel turns the spotlight on mothers, with several of the characters trying and failing to transcend that difficult primary bond.
On the surface, The Weight of Love is about a marriage - a "courteous, twitchy marriage" with complicated and painful roots. Moving back and forth between London in 1995 and Ireland in 2018, Fannin fills in the story of a couple whose love for each other is burdened by the memory of someone else.
Robin and Ruth meet in their twenties. They've both emigrated from Ireland and are working at a school in Clerkenwell, eking out a living. Fannin is excellent at capturing the specific ways the pair experience London, the mildewed showers and fraught house shares, the simultaneous sense of loneliness and freedom.
Just as Robin is about to disclose the depth of his feelings for Ruth, she begins a relationship with his boyhood friend, Joseph, a tormented and self-sabotaging artist.
Twenty years later, Robin and Ruth are back home. They're married but their relationship is unravelling; he has had an affair and she has left. Shortly after the rupture, Robin's mother, a German potter who raised him alone in Cork, is taken critically ill.
Memory begets memory in The Weight of Love, the novel's non-chronological structure essential to its fabric. Fannin manages the time jumps masterfully, slowly uncovering her characters' shared and individual histories, planting questions and answering them in exactly the right places. When we see certain characters in their youth and know - having already seen their futures - who they'll lose and how lonely they'll become, the effect is quietly devastating.
This goes for Robin and Ruth, but for others too. One of Fannin's most inspired choices is to include the point of view of Helen, a long-time friend of the protagonists, in the novel. Helen, once a spirited nurse, has settled for safety and uses food to numb her rage and grief. Embarrassed by her unperceptive husband and worried about her fragile teenage daughter, she is both different and similar to Ruth.
Like all of Fannin's characters, Helen is strikingly real - flawed and funny, her likeability enhanced by the fact that we, the readers, are privy to a secret she shares with no one: she loves Robin - who loves Ruth who loved Joseph.
Helen's love for Robin is "a private kind of love, a pebble-sized love that you could turn over in your pocket without anyone at all being aware of its weight in your hand."
Romantic love in the novel is usually unrequited - or partly requited or belatedly requited - but equally complicated are maternal and filial love. Robin experiences his mother as a claustrophobic force. When he was younger, she'd write messages on the skins of the bananas she put in his lunchbox. Later, he feels "every banana skin he had ever deciphered crawl out of those pungent schoolyard bins to strangle him."
Ruth and Helen are endlessly criticised by their mothers ("She's an elephant," Helen's mother tells a doctor when her daughter is twelve), Joseph is obsessed with his, an addict who didn't or couldn't look after him properly and whose neglect does lasting damage.
Rhythmic and honed, Fannin's writing is full of subtle layers, often operating on more than one level. Her attentiveness to the possibilities and resonances of individual words is among the novel's many pleasures. Joseph's bedroom is "shipwrecked". Ruth knew "not to puncture the caul of him uninvited". The word caul here reflects Joseph's vulnerability and desire for an intact relationship with his mother as well as Ruth's instinctive understanding of that unmet need in him.
The voice of Fannin's columns is audible at times too. Her main characters are knowing and alert, their senses of humour extremely well developed. Even the secondary characters contain multitudes and linger long after the novel ends. "You and I are far less fascinating to them than their flatpacks," Robin's lover says, before they have sex while parked in the back of the IKEA carpark.
Wise and beautifully bittersweet, The Weight of Love explores how we can be haunted by our own ghosts and the ghosts of others, by versions of our younger selves and the lives we failed to lead.