Caroline O’Donoghue: ‘There is a real anger in Irish millennials’
The writer grapples with Irishness, placelessness, loneliness and ‘the rage generation’
Caroline O’Donoghue: There is a sort of loneliness at play in her second novel, Scenes of a Graphic Nature
Caroline O’Donoghue has realised that the more memorable English essays she wrote in school tended to orient around a particular theme. “It was always women who were on their own,” she recalls, “young women and young girls on their own.”
There was one she invented around the age of 10 or 11 about a girl raised by wolves, which she feels was “the first good thing” she wrote. Another was about a young teenage mother who had won a buggy. Another was about a kid navigating life during the Cuban missile crisis, convinced the world was ending.
Growing up the youngest of four near Cork city, O’Donoghue “fetishised isolation”. Whenever she was in the car with a parent, she imagined driving off towards the horizon. Once, returning from a family holiday in Spain, her family were caught in the administrative red tape regarding her being on a parent’s passport, and she found herself and her mother stuck in passport control limbo at the airport, instigating another daydream about separation. “I was always very secretive and trying to carve out little spaces,” she says.
O’Donoghue had to fit in writing her first novel around her other work. She got up early to write before starting her day job
A desire for loneliness isn’t an unusual thing for a writer to experience. “It feels like a flippant thing to say,” she says of pandemic-era lockdown, “but I do cope quite well alone.” Like many writers, she found her working day largely unaltered – “same routine; getting up in the morning, sitting down making up stories and answering emails” – even as the cycle of publishing and promotion has been completely altered.
There is a sort of loneliness at play in O’Donoghue’s second novel, Scenes of a Graphic Nature, published by Virago on August 6th. Its lead character, a Londoner named Charlotte, aka Charlie, is unmoored in her career as an aspiring film-maker who has made a feature film but is left wondering whether it’s any use.
Her relationship with her mother is disjointed, and her father is seriously ill in hospital. Her friendship with a best friend and collaborator is dissipating. To anchor herself, Charlie focuses on Ireland, a place she is about to visit for the first time, despite it being both her father’s homeland and the setting for her film.
As a journalist, O’Donoghue wrote for Grazia magazine, The Irish Times, Vice, and other outlets, and was a contributing editor to The Pool, a feminist online outlet that shut down in early 2019, having been founded four years previously by Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne. Her first novel, Promising Young Women, was published in 2018, and when she got a six-figure two-book deal for a young adult series last year, she described how two months previously she had lost half her regular income because The Pool had closed, and was staring at £2,000 in unpaid invoices.
She had to fit in writing that first novel around her other work. She got up early to write before starting her day job. During this process, she says the book “fell out” of her. That novel “happened to come out during this moment where people were talking about sexual dynamics in the workplace, and I had written a book about sexual dynamics in the workplace … It was like a paper airplane being picked up by a gust of wind.”
This time it was different. The second novel was something she kept picking up and putting back down, and eventually “got really psyched out by the whole thing … tying myself in a pretzel knot about the whole thing, and at the beginning of this year I was going a bit mad, occupying my every waking thought, and then the pandemic hit, and then …” Well, everyone’s lives and industries were upturned, and perspective became a looming, global, existential beast.
Publication was delayed by eight weeks, and in a weird way, the writer’s worry of reaction and reception was appeased somewhat by the extraordinary context. It was almost as if, because publishing, purchasing and promotion had been upended, a new unspoken permission existed for the book “to not do well”.
People aren’t crowding into bookshops, everything is weird, and by virtue of the bizarre realities of the situation it may not fly off the shelves. But Scenes of a Graphic Nature will do well, because it’s good. It’s a meditation on identity, placelessness, the gravitational pull of ancestral vagueness, the enduring legacy of Irish secrecy, the awkwardness with which “outsiders” search for answers, all wrapped up in a moreish mystery unfolding as a friendship between two young women.
There is a lightness and charm to O’Donoghue’s turns of phrase. The book zips along, but it also often catches you off guard. The ease and delightfulness that accompanies reading her prose often skids to a halt, demanding the reader stop and consider that there’s something more profound going on than merely a “good book” or a “pleasurable read”.
Take, for example, an early scene on the fictional island of Clipim, off Kerry, the novel’s main setting, where an islander is singing in a pub, and Charlie is conflicted about the role of the audience in viewing what so many expressions of Irish culture are: public intimacy. “I want to enjoy this,” Charlie thinks, “I know I’m supposed to be enjoying this. But there’s something strangely scandalising about someone performing their national identity at you with such muscular pride. I feel I should look away.”
A tourist’s attempt at surreptitiously filming the performance on their phone “feels exploitative to collect a moment of someone’s life as though it were a butterfly in a jar.” But then the scene flips again, with Charlie’s projected preciousness shattered by the singer himself, when he throws his arm over the tourist’s shoulder, whose phone camera switches to selfie mode.
You see people’s visions of Ireland projected back to you again . . . It’s like, ‘Oh, you think Ireland is one long street, and Sally Rooney lives two doors up’ ”
The seed of the book was sown in 2016. O’Donoghue was at a dinner party “full of my very lovely English friends, all very thoughtful people who read the Guardian”, when one mentioned “the story about the babies”. O’Donoghue hadn’t been plugged into the news that day, and realised he was talking about what had happened in Tuam, where the remains of babies and children had been discovered close to a mother and baby home. She remembers the feeling of “Ireland is still up to this shit. It was such a disgusting, appalling, confusing story.”
As an Irish person, she felt that she had to apply some context. The conversation moved on to the Aberfan disaster of 1966, when 116 children and 28 adults were killed when waste from a coal mine, soaked by heavy rain, caused a massive landslide into the small Welsh village.
While O’Donoghue also felt defensive and on the back foot about her own country, that idea of a generation of children being wiped out in a moment marked the evening’s conversation out as “a sticky piece of chewing gum starting to gather lint in my brain”. “This is the book that spawned from that evening,” she says.
Having lived in London for a decade, the pull and push of Ireland as home and away is a part of O’Donoghue’s life. As an author, the boom in brilliant Irish writers who happen to be women is also now framing her work in a way she didn’t expect.
The idea of “nationality as a genre is real”, O’Donoghue says, “What’s so interesting is how it’s now changed – what those expectations are. Before, an ‘Irish writer’ was something that was going to be quite brooding, quite masculine, quite miserable . . . Now I feel it’s more become synonymous with the biting Irish wit that Irish women have – Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan, Sinéad Gleeson – writing about tough subjects with a kind of a wink, which is a stereotype I very much identify with. One thing about the phenomenon of female Irish writers that’s been happening over the last couple of years is that you see people’s visions of Ireland projected back to you again . . . It’s like, ‘Oh, you think Ireland is one long street, and Sally Rooney lives two doors up.’ ”
O’Donoghue is part of a generation who live with the legacy of Ireland’s “dark” past, and are interrupting it in different ways. “I think there was a generation of denial,” she says, referring to her parents’ and grandparents’ generation, dominated by the authority of the church. The 1980s and 1990s gave rise to, as she puts it, “the discovery generation, discovering how many skeletons were in the closet. I’m 30 this year, and this is the rage generation. I think there is a real anger in millennial Irish people.
“What we grew up with were ghost stories, in a sense. I remember hearing about the Magdalene laundries and being very frightened. It’s such a long shadow, but because we didn’t have any direct relationship with it, we were left with this looming ghost story that I think really affects how young people are. I think that’s why part of Repeal the Eighth – it was almost like bile coming up.”
For now, as the tour and festival schedule that accompanies a book release is disrupted, she’s back to writing in her home in London, at a desk that also doubles as a fold-up Murphy bed. All Our Hidden Gifts, a young adult book, is out in February 2021, and she’s working on a sequel to that and another novel. If there were top trumps for authors, she believes her highest score would be her “ability to sit down and actually do the work”.
Showing up to write is half the battle, but O’Donoghue’s writing doesn’t just live on the page, it thrives. And with her productivity flourishing, this is an Irish woman writer more than justifying her place in the new, ever-growing pantheon.