By Stephanie Heeb
After three years of reading the books listed on a syllabus or on one of multiple reading lists, which were mostly filled with books from preceding centuries, last year was the year I fell back in love with contemporary fiction. Having the complete freedom to choose what I wanted to read, I browsed bookshops with immense pleasure and excitement. I read a lot and I read widely; from children’s fiction to classics to commercial romance. Only when I looked back recently, however, did I notice that three of my favourite books from that year showed significant, almost curious, similarities: all published after 2016, they were all written by young, Irish female writers, and all treat themes so similar, that I started interrogating myself about why it was that I was drawn to those specific books.
Firstly, there is Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians (Faber, 2016). McBride is primarily known for her debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2014), which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014. The Lesser Bohemians is her second published work, but the first one she wrote, as she reveals in this excellent episode of the podcast Literary Friction. Listen to the episode to hear her read out a scene from the novel in her melodic Irish accent, and you’ll hear what makes this book so special; it’s unique, modern, almost stream-of-consciousness style may be hard to get into when it is read, but hearing it read aloud makes its poetic language leap from the page into the heart. Set in Camden during the 1990s, the book tells the story of Eilis, a young Irish girl who moves to London to go to drama school, and consequently starts a relationship with a much older actor called Stephen. There is a lot of drama, a lot of sex, and it is very dark, and even hard to read at times. But in no way does it fall into clichés or stereotypes, and it remains an utterly sincere examination of a complicated relationship throughout.
Secondly, Conversations with Friends (Faber, 2017) by Sally Rooney. Rooney’s second novel, Normal People (Faber, 2018) was met with extraordinary success last year and was short-listed for the Man Booker even before its release. But Conversations with Friends, her debut, is just as remarkable. Set in Dublin, it follows Frances and Bobbi, two best friends and ex-partners, who perform poetry together. They meet and befriend an older couple: Melissa, a photographer, and Nick, an actor. Their lives begin to intertwine, and Frances starts an affair with Nick – are you starting to see the parallels? The novel follows Frances through this relationship and accompanies her as she struggles with her health and financial problems. Her life provides a stark contrast with the luxury Nick and Melissa can afford, as she sees first-hand on group holiday in France; this kind of examination of power relations between social groups is central to Rooney’s work. Conversations with Friends may be relatively poor in plot, but it more than makes up for it with its dialogue, which is natural and captivating. Rooney makes us of several forms of communication, including email, to depict the intimate relationship of her characters. Her writing is direct – she even forgoes the use of any quotation marks in her dialogue – and honest, and it is, in my opinion, rightfully that Rooney has been hailed as a one of the most exciting new voices in fiction.
Lastly, Almost Love (Riverrun, 2018) by Louise O’Neill. Maybe it is due to the author being primarily known for young adult fiction that this book seemed to be taken less seriously, but personally, I believe it is as equally worth highlighting as the preceding two. While it is the most traditional of the three stylistically, it is just as interesting in the way it examines the relationship it portrays. Sarah, an art school teacher, begins an affair with a powerful businessman, Matthew, while doubting her relationship with the wealthy Oisín. Through “Now” and “Then” sections, the reader is able to discover both Sarah’s past and present, and by doing so, begins to understand the reasons why she is such an unlikeable character. That is the only warning that I would give to a reader, as while Frances and Eilis are by no means likeable protagonists, Sarah is indeed – and there is no other word – horrible. Similarly to Rooney, O’Neill includes communication in its modern incarnations, like text messages, into her novel, which add to the crushing sense of obsession that is displayed in the text; and as the reader, I became absolutely obsessed with the story.
So to sum up the similarities, all the novels have young, female, Irish protagonists, who are creatives: Eilis is an actor, Frances a poet, and Sarah an artist. They all struggle financially and live what we could deem “bohemian” lifestyles, rich in cultural and social capital but poor in economic capital, and at some point or another have to benefit from the wealth of others. All of them begin obsessive, all-consuming relationships with older, more powerful men. All three novels were all published in the last three years, during which feminist discourses have come more and more to the foreground. Especially the discussion surrounding the “Me Too” movement has widely questioned and condemned the sort of relationship these novels portray, in which an older, powerful man arguably takes advantage of a younger, more vulnerable woman. So why am I, and obviously thousands of other readers, so attracted to these stories? These are undoubtedly good books. Even looking at them lying beside me* as I’m writing this, I feel an urge to pick them up and read them all over again, looking for something I may have missed. In an era in which we are celebrating independent, strong women, why are we still reading stories of vulnerable, young women trapped in their obsession with older, powerful men? And why do the relationships in these novels still seem desirable?
The trope is an age-old one, and yet we come back to it again and again. I wonder if we have come to the point in which we have seen it played out so many times that we have internalised it as desirable, even fetishized it. The male fantasy of the younger woman who surrenders to the powerful, older man does not only persist throughout literature, film and art, but it is reproduced over and over in reality. Think about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and the plethora of similar stories that have been brought to light since the beginning of “Me Too.” And yet these novels use the same power constellation for the plot of their narratives. So is it worth reading yet another book about this heteronormative trope that we desperately need to readdress, that we need to correct?
I believe it is. I also believe that it is no coincidence that all three novelists are Irish; in a country in which public opinions are shifting, arguably faster than anywhere else, the re-examination of such topics is of even more relevance than it is to us. Firstly, these books are written from the perspective of the women in these relationships, and thus, while they may not be in control in their romantic experiences, it is their voice that the reader hears. The novels explore the consequences and the fallout from their relationships in excruciating detail – the texts are not so much about the men the women obsess over, but about the dire costs this obsession claims. I believe it is worth re-examining this trope from their point of view, for it offers a narrative that history has often neglected.
Secondly, fiction has the wonderful ability to be self-reflective, to know what it is doing, and all of these novels (though I should definitely highlight Conversation with Friends here) are highly aware of their contentious subjects. They know it is a trope, and yet they choose to engage with it – why? For they can offer us a commentary on why this is a trope, why we crave depictions of such relationships and why we keep on reproducing them. The fact that, after reading these novels, I keep seeing the same story reproduced all around me, is proof enough. And finally, let’s not forget that these relationships happen in real life; their depiction in art has served as a model for reality. Surely it is worth conducting a close-examination of what is persistently depicted as a fantasy, both to young women and men? Let me also point out that these stories by no means all end in disaster; these books are not telling us that young women cannot fall in love with older men. They merely remind us that, in the cases they present, there is a power imbalance that needs to be addressed and reflected upon. Especially as it is the same power imbalance that is reflected in society as a whole, not solely in relationships in art and reality. These novels once again prove the power that fiction has in revealing the structures that define our reality.
Read them all; but if I had to recommend one to you, it would be Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. I’ll happily lend it to you – once I get it back.
*Except for Conversations with Friends, which I lent to a friend an age and a half ago. Raphael, let this be your public reminder to get on with reading it.