The Living: a debut that stretches credibility to breaking point
Vacant characters and implausible coincidences thwart the intriguing premise of examining the effect of republican activities on the post-peace generation
Léan Cullinan: scenes of family dinners where the protagonist of ‘The Living’ keeps one eye on the clock for a quick exit are confidently handled. Photograph: Alan Betson
Coincidence, said Albert Einstein, is God’s way of remaining anonymous. Should he choose to settle down on the celestial throne, however, to read The Living, his cover might quickly be blown as the sound of a deified baritone roaring “Oh, come on!” at the number of implausibilities littered across the pages blasts through the clouds. God is tolerant, we’re told, but everyone has a breaking point.
Of the glut of debut Irish novels of recent years, surprisingly few have been written by women. The audacity of this novel’s title, a direct counterpart to Joyce’s most famous story, offers hope that Léan Cullinan will bring some gender balance to the new company of writers, but sadly The Living is built on such a shaky premise and populated by so many dim-witted characters that these aspirations are quickly dashed.
The novel is narrated by Cate Houlihan, a young graduate working for a small Irish publisher while singing in a choir in her free time. Her disappointment that she has not yet found her true calling is well drawn, and scenes of family dinners where she keeps one eye on the clock for a quick exit are confidently handled.
Cate herself seems curiously vacant, lacking in ambition or drive, and springs to life only when a new tenor, Matthew, joins the chorus. Of course, we realise: she just needs a man. Take that, feminism.
It’s clear from early on that Matthew, introverted and secretive, is not to be trusted, but Cate falls for him quickly, perhaps because he too seems untroubled by a personality and has the conversation skills of a corpse. He’s handsome, though, and apparently that’s all that matters. But for Cate to ignore the warning signs that flash like a neon billboard makes her seem at best naïve and at worst downright stupid.
“Why did I have to be such an ignoramus?” she asks in a rare moment of personal clarity. You don’t have to be, is the answer. It’s just the way you’re written.
An intriguing backstory involves generational involvement in the IRA, and Cate becomes an unwitting go-between in the passing of information about a republican’s controversial memoirs. As not just one but two characters conveniently “distrust” email, she collects manuscripts, holds secret meetings in coffee shops and hides memory sticks in her bra, never thinking any of this strange.
Credibility is stretched to breaking point when details of an innocuous train journey taken by a nameless civil servant during the Harold Wilson era, a minor point related to Matthew’s PhD, happen to show up in the manuscript Cate is working on and this becomes a point of contention between them.