Nuala NiÂ Chonchoir’s debut novel, You, is set in 1980 Dublin against the charged backdrop of the River Liffey. The novel tells the turbulent story of a ten-year-old girl and her broken family. Narrated through the child’s point of view and told in the second person, this novel uses plain prose, vivid detail, fresh images, and the delightful Dublin vernacular. You is a compelling story that brings to life complex characters and delivers hard-hitting truths.
At the novel’s opening, the narrator’s single mother, Joan, attempts suicide and is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Even after her discharge and return home, Joan remains depressed, abuses alcohol and, to varying degrees, neglects her three children. Joan also has a sinister love interest, Kit, and he and the novel’s plucky narrator often collide. Indeed one of my favorite scenes comes early in the novel when the narrator innocently walks in on Kit in the bathroom. Several terrible moments pass where Kit remains exposed and relishes, insists on, her seeing him. This moment reveals volumes about both Kit and the child and is expertly and economically handled by NiÂ Chonchair.
Perhaps what I most admired and appreciated about this novel and Ni Chonchair’s great skill set is the enormous restraint she employs, particularly around the novel’s central tragedy and her portrayal of the narrator’s mother, Joan. These characters are fully and compassionately drawn and cannot be easily judged or condemned. More, Ni Chonchair deftly employs humor throughout and achieves great pathos in what is at times a deeply troubling tale. Issues of death, suicide, mental illness, neglect, abuse, alcoholism, and brokenness are central to this novel.
You brought back so many memories of my Dublin childhood in the 80’s, everything from something as small as the orange cellophane wrapping on Lucozade bottles to something as huge as visiting my mother in St. Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital. I, too, grew up around water, the Royal Canal. That canal, just as the River Liffey here, left an indelible mark on my psyche. Much of the suffering, disappointment, and harrowing sense of abandonment in these pages also resonated. For my tastes, the novel perhaps ended on too neat a note. However, to NiÂ Chonchair’s great credit, long after I turned the last page, I’m still thinking about this tragic family. I worry for them, especially for the burdened, feisty, and sensitive child narrator. I also hope hard.