Tale with potential loses in its telling
Oona Frawley’s debut novel, Flight, about a Zimbabwean woman who has just arrived in Ireland, and the elderly couple she cares for, is the first book from Tramp Press
Oona Frawley: nascent potential
In the past two years Irish writing has become a crowded, vibrant place. Stalwarts jostle for elbowroom alongside new voices, and these names – Donal Ryan, Niamh Boyce, Paul Lynch, Colin Barrett, Mary Costello – each recount distinct versions of Ireland. Some tell contemporary stories, others historical, but all have produced work that has started conversations about how the Irish novel represents our lives, as well as social and cultural change.
Oona Frawley’s debut novel, Flight , is also concerned with the Ireland of now. It opens with a pregnant Zimbabwean woman arriving here to seek work. Sandrine notices how people look at her at the airport. “This gaze was not unkind, but neither was it friendly. It was a look of greed . . . to know what her skin meant.” She takes up employment caring for Tom and Claire, an elderly couple sliding painfully into dementia, much to their daughter Elizabeth’s despair.
Using an outsider as narrator not only provides an instantly differing viewpoint but also introduces a character we have seen little of in contemporary Irish fiction. Peter Murphy’s John the Revelator features an African asylum seeker, and Donal Ryan gave us a Siberian labourer in The Spinning Heart . Frawley’s story has its seeds in Ireland’s Citizenship Bill of 2004, and Sandrine is both other and external observer.
Tom and Claire, who built a modest life into one of privilege and travel, have lived in Vietnam and the US, importing spices. Now their peripatetic years are hazily recalled as their health deteriorates.
Frawley offers us a small cast of characters, often reduced further to a theatrical two-hander between either Sandrine and Claire, husband and wife, or mother and daughter. Focusing on so few characters implies that the remaining space will be occupied by story or language. The narrative inches along with stilted velocity and has problems finding momentum. A reader will trust a character who doesn’t say much but not an author who offers even less in terms of narrative.
Tom and Claire feel frequently out of our reach, but the actuality of their current situation feels tangible. Their dementia – frustrating, circular – is rendered deftly and with heart. We may not feel their weight as characters, but the exploration of ageing and mortality is imbued with tenderness.
Claire refers to Sandrine reductively as a servant, but Sandrine is the person with the most power in this story. Well delineated and complex, she is far from a stereotype, and much of the book’s depth centres around her. “Here she has no story. She feels the pressure of other stories hemming in on her own.”
Sandrine’s own words apply to her hierarchy in Flight – but we want to hear more of her thoughts, her life, her past, instead of the white family she works for. The brief snapshots of her pre-Ireland life are the more interesting sections of the book. Conversely, Elizabeth, an only child who wasn’t particularly wanted, and became an intrusive homing beacon for Claire, is as placeless in the book as she is in the lives of her parents.
The story’s pacing is problematic, and backstory frequently presents itself via longueurs and exposition. This is made more obvious by the language. The references to spices, curtains and tapestries are cyclical and ornate. There is often repetition – “rivered my blue veins”, and “their river-veined hands” two pages apart – and many descriptions are top-heavy with adjectives: a “crispy, flaky, strangely oily croissant”. The affect is to arrest a story that lacks propulsion and erode engagement in what’s happening.
There are touches of promise: Sandrine’s character is fully formed, intriguing (not to mention previously invisible in Irish fiction) and shows imagination.
Flight is the first book to be published by the independent Dublin publisher Tramp Press, whose editors clearly have editorial nous and enthusiasm. Flight fails to reach the heights that a risk-taking and unique writer such as Eimear McBride does, but it will be interesting to see what Tramp Press publishes next.
There is nascent potential in Frawley’s writing and a voice here that will out in the future, if the briars of description don’t tangle up the story.
Sinéad Gleeson presents The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1