Happiness Comes From Nowhere
Ward Wood Publishing, £10.99
Shauna Gilligan is only the second Irish writer to be signed by Ward Wood, a small, independent publisher in London.
At the launch of Gilligan's debut novel, Happiness Comes From Nowhere, the writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir commented that: "The big publishers dominate our bookshops and the media so much that our attention is focused on a handful of the books that are published every year ... it's very hard for the small publisher, and the unique book, to get noticed."
Happiness Comes From Nowhere opens with a prologue in which Dirk, the main character, is deliberately overdosing on pills in his south Dublin home, which itself is a sort of silent witness to the unrelenting search for happiness at the heart of this novel.
We have to wait until the closing chapters for the conclusion of this chilling episode. In the meantime, we track Dirk's life from childhood, as an artist, through suburban Dublin, the social scene that is the capital, to Rome and a singularly unredeeming haul to the summit of Croagh Patrick, where Dirk, at a remove from the comfort of his familiar city, feels the chill of realisation as he contemplates the future.
It is clear that Gilligan did her research on suicide in writing this book, eventually concluding that 'happiness comes from nowhere'.
She excavates the multi-layered mother-son relationship of Dirk and Mary with a sureness that gives us, if not Mary, some sense of the difficulties they face.
But it is Ita more than any other character who is the counterpoint to Dirk. We meet her first at a party, in that random way that typifies this novel. We never find out why her mascara is messed up here but later and with a heartbreaking matter-of-factness Ita, still grieving for her mother, puts on her face, goes out and ends up in the grip of Patsy who delivers her to a junior rugby team.
Just as Mary cannot recognise or solve her beloved son's problems, Ita's factory-worker father rails against the danger he senses but cannot see, though both offer some sort of redemption to their young-adult children.
Happiness Comes From Nowhere has already been described as a series of interconnected, disconnected and interlinked stories – a description Gilligan agrees with, saying the traditional linear novel lost out to the reality of the characters' lives.
The action is certainly episodic, hop, skip and jumping with sufficient irregularity to replicate a world where the centre does not always hold. This loose-limbed story could have run away from the reader but for Gilligan's easy control of her narrative in which she never departs from her central themes of suicide, relationship and disconnection.
She ultimately succeeds, as novelist and academic Éilís Ní Dhuibne puts it, in delivering "a refreshingly thoughtful novel, poised and unpredictable."
Running from suburban Dublin in the 1970s to the early 1990s, Happiness Comes From Nowhere is by turn perplexing and unsettling, eloquent and flat, mundane and lyrical as it follows its cast through the peaks and troughs of everyday life.
From Dirk and Sheila, Ita and wide boy Dave, who lingers a while, to a brief and strange encounter with Tara and Eve in a nameless hotel on the outskirts of the city where Sepp is rendered a much more complex character than Dirk's suburban father, Gilligan takes us on a journey of discovery in this thoroughly enjoyable and refreshingly challenging debut novel.