Children’s Books: It all sounds a bit like the Rose of Tralee – but even scarier
Novels by Louise O’Neill, Sarah Crossan and Sarah Moore Fitzgerald are welcome additions to a good year for Irish children’s and young-adult fiction
Louise O’Neill: Only Ever Yours is a remarkable debut. Photograph: Clare Keogh
It’s proving to be a good year for Irish children’s and young-adult fiction. The past six months have brought impressive novels from, among others, Sheila Agnew, Brian Conaghan, Roddy Doyle, Mary Finn, Nicola Pierce and Deirdre Sullivan, giving us narratives that offer fresh and invigorating perspectives. To these must now be added three more novels, all of which, thematically and stylistically, considerably extend the range of existing material and, even better, challenge it.
Louise O’Neill’s remarkable debut novel, Only Ever Yours (Quercus, £7.99), merits attention and commendation on several levels. In one sense, and particularly because of its structure and suspense-fuelled plot, it qualifies as an easy read, but in terms of its content, little about it is easy: numerous moments may well remind readers of those television news programmes that warn viewers that they may find certain images in the bulletin distressing.
Such distress as readers may experience will arise from the shock of recognising that the allegedly futuristic world that O’Neill so vividly and intensely imagines is in many respects remarkably close (in all senses) to our own.
The novel is set in an unyieldingly strict boarding school where the student body (a phrase which here assumes a special significance) is exclusively female, the students being known as “eves”. As they approach their 16th year they prepare for “the Ceremony”, the final stage of the destiny that has awaited them since their creation, their entry into a world that in one way or another is male-ordered and male-controlled. Some will end up as “companions”, some will become “concubines” and some will remain, as “chastities”, teaching in the school.
The precise details of their ultimate individual destinies will be determined with the arrival of a group of young men, “the Inheritants”, dropping in annually to make their choice from what has been made available for them.
In a book with many brilliantly realised sequences involving high drama, cruelty, exploitation and manipulation, the depiction of the particular selection process described here stands out as utterly compelling. A superb set piece, it all sounds a bit like the Rose of Tralee – but even scarier.
From such a scenario O’Neill has created a picture of young womanhood tortured by misogynistic demands and societal expectations into a grotesque caricature, overly concerned with their appearance, their sexual attractiveness and their standing with their peers.
This is, fundamentally, an extremely serious book, although along the way are pointed witty asides on today’s obsessions with the absurd trivia of our pop-culture world. Labelling it dystopian merely makes for facile categorisation: it has a much sharper focus than the term generally implies.
The young heroine of Sarah Crossan’s Apple and Rain (Bloomsbury, £12.99) experience none of the harsher traumas suffered by the girls in O’Neill’s novel, but this is not to say that her existence is carefree. She is the Apple of the title, someone who, although only 13 years old, is already coming to understand something of the sadness implicit in the phrase “broken heart”.
Her mother, an aspiring actor, moved out 11 years ago, leaving her in the care of a firm, if well-intentioned, nana. Her father has remarried. Some school friends prove to be less loyal than they once were. There is a potentially enriching relationship with the boy next door to be negotiated and a wholly unrequited one with a handsome sixth-former.
In so many respects her mother’s return could not come at a better time, but when she arrives, bringing with her the “Rain” of the title, Apple’s world becomes even less secure and infinitely more complex. There is, however, the wonderful outlet provided by the poetry she both reads and writes, assisted by the benevolent encouragement of her English teacher. It is in this dimension of her novel that Crossan’s skill as a writer is at its most pronounced, contributing to a portrayal of adolescence that is subtle and humane.
The subtle and the humane are much in evidence also in Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s The Apple Tart of Hope (Orion, £10.99), a novel as attractively written as its cover (by Leo Nickolls) is attractively designed.
At its centre is Oscar Dunleavy, a young teenager, with whose memorial service the novel opens: he is missing, presumed dead by drowning.
The mysterious circumstances of his death – if that indeed is what it is – are clarified only very gradually in the interweaving chapters (or “slices”), narrated retrospectively by the boy himself and by his best friend, Meg. In the process of the unravelling some very dark family secrets will be exposed.
Oscar is a likeably quirky character, his baking prowess being merely one of his many attributes. The most memorably drawn character is, however, the spiteful and malicious Paloma, wickedly jealous of Meg’s place in Oscar’s affections and determined to thwart their happiness in her every machination.
But, as Oscar’s father is quoted as saying, and as the book touchingly demonstrates, kindness “looks gentle and mild on the outside but it has hidden power”. It is her ability to convey convincingly this “hidden power” that gives Fitzgerald’s writing its flavour and its strength.