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As You Were: A powerful novel about life, death and the bit in between

Elaine Feeney’s debut novel, set on a hospital ward, has a strong state-of-the-nation feel

As You Were
Author: Elaine Feeney
ISBN-13: 978-1787301634
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Guideline Price: £14.99

“What I really wanted to say just then, was that being dead doesn’t scare me, in fact I give it very little thought. Dying does. Those few moments. They terrify me. The in-between.”

Sinéad Hynes, the protagonist of Elaine Feeney’s powerful debut novel, is a Galway woman in her 40s recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. Holed up in bed on a public hospital ward, she needs assistance to eat, to shower, to go to the toilet. Still processing her diagnosis, Sinéad refuses to tell her husband Alex the truth, claiming instead some nebulous illness that means he can’t bring her young sons to visit.

Feeney maroons her protagonist in this literal in-between place for the duration of As You Were. It gives a tragic urgency to the novel. The predicaments of Sinéad and her neighbouring patients are told in a style that switches from compassion to rage and back again. On the ward, no one has time left to mess about. It is a liminal place where truths are told, often in violent, uncompromising language.

The histories of the patients work as a microcosm for wider societal problems, and the chief success of As You Were is the way it interweaves the personal and public. Covering as it does the many ways women (and men) have been mistreated by Irish society, the novel has a strong state-of-the-nation feel that grabs the reader from the beginning and refuses to let go.

But first, the Magpie. Sinéad's individual plight is symbolised, like Crow in Max Porter's Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, by a bird that appears to her after her diagnosis: "Everything filled up with her plumage, the terrifying whiteness of her breast." Porter's novel was successfully reworked for the stage in 2018 with a sell-out production starring Cillian Murphy. As You Were has a similar depth and nuance to it that could work well for adaptation.

Poet’s eye

Feeney, who teaches at NUI Galway and St Jarlath’s College, is best known for three poetry collections (Where’s Katie?, The Radio Was Gospel, Rise) and has also written a drama piece (Wrongheaded) for Liz Roche Company. Her work has been widely published and anthologised in Poetry Review, the Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, Copper Nickel, Stonecutter Journal and others. Her fiction has similarities to the brash, bright characterisation of writers such as Alan McMonagle and Jess Kidd, though Feeney eschews the surreal in favour of an all too real, brutal world.

Different forms are used effectively in her debut, and her poet’s eye comes through in the details: “She flew away, piercing her black arc through the sky blue.” As Sinéad struggles against her diagnosis, there’s great tension and energy in the narrative that’s matched in the prose: “Spring arrived, shy and reserved, with a little frost spite. Daffodils popped, snow fell, winds came, lambs dropped.” Elsewhere, the rage is palpable: “God is so overfuckingrated.”

In Sinéad, Feeney has created a remarkable protagonist, a self-made property developer whose characteristics and backstory are traditionally assumed to be masculine in nature (and all too often in fiction.) She is, in no particular order, a property developer, a mother, a wife, a daughter with a miserable McGahern-esque father, a friend to the people on the ward, a woman who is dying.

Mental toll

Feeney is excellent on the physical aspects of cancer – “All pain ends at ten” – and on the doctors who decide everything without her at a “Round Table Meeting”, but the heart of the book is the mental toll on the patient. A woman who has closed herself off emotionally is cracked open by illness. It leaves her vulnerable, utterly dependent, pleading with her husband to help her escape home:

“I begged and I told him I can’t be a prisoner. That is not who I am. And that a taxi driver can’t be paid in red lipstick and blobfish slippers, that I am, for all accounts, entirely poor. Which is ironic. But devastating.”

For all its cruel awakenings, As You Were is also about friendship and community – a strong bond develops between Sinéad and two elderly women on the ward – that has plenty of laughs along the way. The busyness of the opening section, where we meet too many characters at once, transitions smoothly into daily life on the ward, where stories of single mothers, laundries, homosexuality and abortion are all vividly rendered and interspersed with the ordinary realities of dying:

“‘Like if I were to die suddenly you need to make a hair appointment immediately. I’m a state,’ I said, as I grabbed a fistful of my brassy yellow hair in my hand.”

As You Were offers meditations on life and death from the coalface. Fierce and insistent, its stories continue to burn brightly long after reading.