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Acts of Desperation: Bracing, poignant and devastatingly accurate

Book review: Megan Nolan’s ‘raw’ debut novel of a young woman’s awakening

Acts of Desperation
Acts of Desperation
Author: Megan Nolan
ISBN-13: 9781787332492
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £14.99

“You could tell these nights before they had started usually, some air of mischief in the room when we began to drink. We threw back the first drinks, greedily anticipating the coming looseness and hysteria. There were things we had expected to have by now that we did not have.”

On the precipice of an adult world she’s not sure she wants to join, the unnamed protagonist of Megan Nolan’s debut novel Acts of Desperation exists in a kind of semi-state of inebriation and debauchery that is magnificently, at times excruciatingly, depicted by an author whose mission seems to be to tell it like it is.

There is an emotional heft to the novel that many will call “raw” but that would do a disservice to the level of craft Nolan applies to her subject matter. While the preoccupations of her book – love, desire, power, debasement, romantic disillusionment – make for a bracing and poignant story of a young woman’s awakening, the writing is lucid and devastatingly accurate.

An epigraph from Raymond Carver’s Late Fragment feels appropriate both in theme and style. As with Carver, Nolan cuts to the quick with the precision of her sentences: “I was no longer the barely-legal-but-knowing teenager who had wielded such power over men. Nor was I anything like a self-possessed adult woman who might attract them by way of her autonomy.”

With her narrator's whipsmart tone, low self-esteem issues and penchant for sexual debasement, Nolan will likely be compared to contemporary writers such as Sally Rooney, Kristen Roupenian and Ottessa Moshfegh. While these comparisons certainly hold, in Acts of Desperation there is a sweeter sense of openness to the world, despite its many problems. The wry social commentary is there, but it's from the perspective of a character who hasn't yet withdrawn from the world she critiques.

Nolan's narrator is very much a part of this story, not a sardonic spectator. She looks back on her relationship with Ciaran, a cold and troubled individual, with contempt for his treatment of her, but her own role within the dynamic is also questioned and scrutinised. In this way, Acts of Desperation seems more aligned to an older sensibility of Irish writing, that of Edna O'Brien, Nuala O'Faolain, Rosita Sweetman. There is an innocence on the part of the narrator, at least for the initial months of the relationship, that recalls the hopeful, love-eager protagonists of these writers. The awakenings are brutal but keenly felt.

Born in Waterford in 1990, Nolan is an arts writer who now lives in London. Her essays, fiction and reviews have been published in the New York Times, the White Review, the Sunday Times, the Village Voice, the Guardian and in the literary anthology, Winter Papers. She also writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

Gender inequalities

Her debut novel has a state-of-the-nation feel to it, with a strong awareness of the gender inequalities that exist in modern society. “Mediating your own victimhood is just part of being a woman,” the narrator says at one point. Elsewhere, there are numerous examples – and not just with Ciaran – of the ways men mistreat women for their own gratification.

Nolan has interesting things to say on how women are socially conditioned to hate their bodies from a young age and to fit into certain roles or feel guilty for not conforming. Although the narrator initially likes cooking meals for Ciaran, as the relationship sours, she feels hard done by: “It’s a peculiar anger, resenting doing something that nobody asked you to do.”

Much of the book is given over to the subject of sex and desire, including the appeal of young women to older men. The narrator sums up the dynamic in baldly transactional terms: “I was young enough to be compelling to them by virtue only of my youth, standing in as a monument to whatever things they felt they no longer had access to.”

There are many killer descriptions of this ilk in the book, moments of recognition for female readers. There are instances of rape, brutally and sparely depicted, and then instances of rape by any other name: “Eventually I did what I had to do to stop him from wanting to have sex with me, which was to have sex with him.”

Of the many sexual partners she discusses over the course of the book, the narrator ultimately has to ask herself, “I wondered how they always knew that I was someone to be hurt.”

By the later stages of the book, these acts of desperation don’t stop entirely but there is the sense that the narrator sees the men in her life more clearly for who they are and what they want from her. Above all else, she has learned to know her own mind and to avoid those truly desperate people who want to take that capacity away from her.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts