Sin, sensation and a remarkably serious read
FICTION: One Hundred Names, By Cecelia Ahern, Harper Collins, 330pp. £14.99
CECELIA AHERN’s ninth novel deals with a topical subject: the ethics of investigative journalism. Kitty works for a Dublin television station, Network, and a magazine called Et Cetera. She has made a documentary falsely accusing a schoolteacher, Colin Maguire, of child abuse. Kitty admits she didn’t check her sources and is suitably contrite, but remorse doesn’t save her television job, and she’s worried that her contract with Et Cetera, too, will get the chop. In addition to economic and professional punishment, she is the victim of regular doses of popular censure, which expresses itself scatologically: various kinds of excrement (dog, horse, et cetera, as one might say) are deposited on the doorstep of her flat. Her landlord, who runs a dry cleaner’s in the same premises, is understandably annoyed and threatens eviction. As if all this weren’t crisis enough for any heroine in the opening chapters of a novel, the only person who supports Kitty, the eccentric editor Constance Dubois, dies.
But Constance leaves something for Kitty: a sealed envelope, containing a list of 100 names. What does this mysterious legacy mean?
Curiosity keeps us turning the pages, as Kitty dashes around Dublin in quest of answers. Who are the people on the list? What have they got in common? What is Kitty supposed to do about them? Fans of Cecilia Ahern will be familiar with this formula, which recurs in her fiction: in PS, I Love You, the heroine was left a series of letters from her dead husband; in another novel, the protagonist is given a box of secrets; and in yet another, a locked diary is the catalyst. Kitty decides that Constance intended her to seek out the individuals listed, listen to their stories – and publish them, naturally. She meets a variety of people who tell her interesting biographical tales of quirky ambition, battles with cancer, physical deformity and tragic bereavement. The resolution is subtle and cleverly handled, if not entirely satisfying at a narrative level, and the novel ends happily on high moral ground. Kitty learns to tell the difference between a sensational and a genuinely human story.
The narrative unfolds mainly from Kitty’s point of view, but Ahern allows snippets to be told in the personas of the characters under investigation: the medium is the message here, as she takes a risk with perspective that would be perfectly at home in a literary novel, and manages it with admirable adroitness. Her theme, too, is the stuff of serious literature. This is not romantic fiction – there’s hardly any romance or sex in the book, and precious little shopping. At heart it’s a novel of ideas.
But ironically, given the message of the novel, its fault is its superficiality. Characters, of whom there are many, are sketchily portrayed. The two main emotions expressed are anger and delight (at a practical joke, a new hairdo, the offer of a holiday). While Ahern shows herself to be a clever formalist, and although some of the writing is stylish, the novel includes several examples of wobbly sentences and some wooden dialogue.
Ahern has sold more than 15 million copies of her books worldwide. She is a huge international success. What is the secret of such popularity? One reason may be that the novel – and this one appears to resemble her others – uses motifs and devices reminiscent of fairytales. Like the child hero of a fairtytale, Kitty is abandoned to fend for herself in a bewitched urban forest, assaulted by unseen monsters who defile her home. Constance Dubois, eccentric, high powered, other-worldly – in her enchantingly odd house even the kitchen cupboards are filled with books, and bottles of wine are “planted” in flowerpots in the shed – is a fairy godmother. She gives Kitty a magical gift; she sets her an “impossible task”. When Kitty follows the instructions and performs the task, her problems are solved. The outcast is welcomed back into the fold. Perhaps it is the familiar fairytale formula – take the advice of the elders, no matter how puzzling it is – reinforced by gothic motifs, such as locked diaries, closed boxes and sealed envelopes, that makes the novels so attractive to so many readers. In the world of the fairytale, translated to the idiom of modernity, we feel at home. And, as in the fairtytale, there is an unambiguous moral: it’s better to let people tell their own stories than to rush in and invent sensational fictions, and the stories of ordinary folk are more interesting than those of celebrities. This may not be entirely true, but it’s a comforting thought, and there’s plenty else, to comfort, in the novel: a great deal of compassion for the old and the sick, some excellent vignettes of humour and courage in the face of adversity.
To dismiss “chick lit” is easy. Women’s writing, especially if it is commercially successful, has always been fair game. Henry James’s Henrietta Stackpole, a likeable journalist, is painted as a figure of fun in Portrait of a Lady; in Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford holds silly Mrs Wannop, who supports her family by her writing, in similar contempt – it’s a given that her writing is rubbish, even though he admires her work ethic (which resembles that of Ahern: she works hard). More recently, the Sunday Times journalist AA Gill, in a negative review of Downton Abbey, remarked that “the plotlines have the crushing predictability of a Women’s Institute writing circle”. Why not the crushing predictability of an Icelandic saga, or a Western movie, or a novel by Charles Dickens? But it seems nothing is as ridiculous as a female novelist, particularly if she makes a lot of money. They are the mothers-in-law of the literary world.
Ahern is only 31, and a novelist of talent. At heart she’s an intellectual type of writer and can invent a compelling storyline. A more literary kind of fiction, accessible but slower, would allow her the freedom to delve deeper into her thoughts about people and life. This novel is topical, interesting and serious. Sin, guilt, expiation, redemption are her themes. But she expresses her reflections on these enormous issues in the most popular of contemporary idioms. Imprisoned in the glittery gift wrapper of a dust jacket are ideas not unlike those explored in Crime and Punishment. It’s a surprising combination, to say the least.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest book is Shelter of Neighbours. She teaches Creative Writing in UCD