These first 2 choices I picked pretty much at random, but they actually have a lot in common. Both published in the last few years and both set in the 1990s, documenting a young woman’s time at university. This was the era when I went away to uni for the first time (embarassingly there have been many times since, I am the eternal student) and both absolutely captured that period spot on. To help take us back, here’s a 1990s ad break – Levi adverts were huuuuge in the 90s and this was my favourite, probably because I like being in water:
On with books. Firstly, Tender by Belinda McKeon (2015) which I read after being convinced by Cathy’s excellent review. Told from the point of view of Catherine, Tender details her relationship with James, a funny, delightful man who bowls her over from the start:
“Everything about him was so lit up by this brilliant, glinting comedy”
Their friendship becomes very intense, very quickly. Catherine has arrived in Dublin having led a sheltered life where her every move is reported back to her parents by neighbours. James has just returned from Berlin, whereas Catherine has never been on a plane.
“She had never heard a boy talk so sincerely, so emotionally, before. She had actually squirmed, listening to him. If he had been joking, if he had been being ironic, that would have been one thing, but this was not irony, this was strange, unafraid openness.”
However, James is not quite as open as he first appears. While Catherine comes out of her shell at uni, having sex, drinking, having fun, she gradually realises that glittering James has a secret. It’s unlikely that any reader will be as naïve and inexperienced as Catherine, so I don’t think its much of a spoiler to say James is gay, and he eventually comes out to her. McKeon brilliantly captures how this announcement causes Catherine-as-she-used-to-be to hit against Catherine-as-she-is-becoming:
“Widen her eyes; force them full of brightness. Show none of the riot going on inside; the bafflement, the confusion with all its stupid roars and plumettings, the astonishment, the weird temptation to stare….Nothing was more urgent now than to keep all of this out, to keep her face soft with calm and with intelligence and with openness, the face of someone wiser, someone better, the face of someone that she wanted, so badly, to be.”
James’ struggles may have (thankfully) dated, but his hurt and pain are fresh:
“I watch everyone Catherine, I watch them live their lives, and I watch them meet the people they can love, and I watch them go on their dates, and take over sitting rooms to have sex with them, and I – what am I supposed to do?”
The real strength of the novel is how McKeon captures the vulnerability, confusion and intensity of young adult lives without losing older, cynical readers like me. Catherine is immature, selfish and behaves appallingly at one point. And yet I really felt for her. However misguided, however possessive and unreasonable she is, she’s a young woman struggling to find her way:
“She wanted the brilliant, funny, vibrant James, lit up with enjoyment, teeming with it, and she wanted him to be only her friend. She did not want him to love the others this much, to take such unbridled pleasure in their presence.”
Tender brilliantly captures a specific time in the 1990s – all the pop culture references brought it flooding back to me – and a time in people’s lives that transcends the specific circumstances. McKeon’s psychological observations are acute but the novel never falters under the weight of this. The characters with all their flaws, their brilliance and their mundanities, have really stayed with me. Tender is a moving novel, recognisable and touching.
Secondly, The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (2016). McBride’s first novel, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, used stream of consciousness and struggled for years to find a publisher as it was seen as non-commercial. It went on to have gratifyingly huge success. This, her second novel, also breaks down language and syntax, but I thought it was a bit less deconstructed than her first, possibly more approachable. Eily arrives at drama school in London from Ireland, terrified and excited:
“Remember people are blind to under your skin or. Under my skin now.”
“All the speculative friendships I, jealous, observe. It’s just space but I have so much distance to make and this seems a wistful world.”
McBride’s style perfectly suits the overwhelming confusion of feelings that come with being young, in a new city and reeling from all the new experiences and opportunities that are landing at your feet.
“Sun of the morning. London day. The banjaxed exhuming themselves from doorways. Buses and music. Spivs and Goths. New Age Travellers and leather coats and too-tight jeans and diamond whites. Everywhere heaves of fighting in the streets. This is the finest city I think and, no matter how awkward or bloodily I am in it now.”
She meets Stephen, an actor 20 years her senior, and the two of them begin a relationship. It is a long time before it is articulated as such, and in the meantime there are misunderstandings, jealousies and horrible sex with other people. Eily and Stephen are both deeply damaged and McBride picks apart their individual pain and the loving, difficult relationship they create together with perfectly paced plotting and telling detail. It is a heavy-going story at times without doubt, but there is humour there too, such as Eily’s speculation as to Stephen’s dating life:
“They’ll speak interestingly of the Royal Court at some elegant restaurant where he’ll footsie her up. Then go back to her flat. Pet her Siamese cat and spend the night inside because he’s the type who knows what’s good for him – women who give men what they want. Not me, with a band-aid in the hook of my bra, unable even to fake it and no idea.”
The Lesser Bohemians is a love story, but absolutely not romanticised in any way. Eily and Stephen come from deeply disturbed backgrounds and they both keep messing up, frequently. They are also both likeable, and so much more than their pasts. They are trying to move forward into rewarding, fulfilling lives individually and together. They have found each other and they love each other.
“I’ve pushed my fingers right through his skin, caught hold of his ribs and must now fall with him.”
McBride is a stunning writer and she can craft sentences of breathtaking beauty. Anything by her is a must-read.
To end, when I first went to uni I only had a few CDs (yes kids, my music was stored on discs!), one of which was Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? by Limerick band The Cranberries, featuring the beautiful voice of lead singer Dolores O’Riordan, who sadly died this year: