New Fiction: The Privileged by Emily Hourican review
Thoughtful commercial fiction with a southside Dublin backdrop of drugs, partying and growing up
We all know not to anger the feminists by calling books written by women “chick lit” but often the terms used to replace it are just as grating. Take “quality women’s fiction” and its patronising gender-based selectiveness. Where is the shelf for quality men’s fiction in the bookshop? Where are the awards? There are none, because men’s fiction doesn’t need to be categorised. Books by male writers exist in their own right and are judged, as they should be, on individual merit.
Female authors who use a familiar and emotive style, or who write about domestic issues and relationships – the core of so much fiction, male or female – are often lumped together with lighter fare. There are stilettos and other fashion items in Emily Hourican’s debut novel The Privileged, but there are also vibrant characters, finely-observed social backdrops and universal themes of love, friendship and survival.
The Privileged is well-written, thoughtful commercial fiction that tells a compelling story centred on the friendship between three southside Dublin girls. The story begins when straight-talking Stella and her best friend Laura rescue a comatose classmate, the beautiful Amanda O’Hagen, from being molested outside a teenage disco that will be nauseatingly familiar to anyone who has encountered the micro-minis and booze-fuelled bravado outside Donnybrook Rugby Club on certain evenings.
An unlikely friendship develops between the girls, which sees Stella and Laura drawn into Amanda’s world of new money, modelling and middle-class drug-taking. Switching easily between passages when the girls are at school and their respective careers as women approaching 30, Hourican’s novel succeeds in laying out Amanda’s wilful self-destruction as she tries to unshackle herself from a controlling, social-climbing mother.
From the Dublin party scene – “the jaw was a dead giveaway, even when her speech remained distinct and her movements steady” – to the cut-throat New York legal world, this is a book about upper middle-class characters with upper middle-class problems.
It is to Hourican’s credit that the grit of her “privileged” crew comes through, with Amanda’s descent into serious drug abuse offering a convincing picture of degradation.
The loveless relationship between Amanda and Mrs O’Hagen turns toxic when the erratic, and perfectly named Huw, enters the picture. Rich, English and equally bent on self-destruction, Huw drives a wedge between Amanda and her friends in a storyline that has strong echoes of Amy Winehouse’s tragic death. Other popular cultural touchstones are American legal dramas such as Suits and The Good Wife, brought to life on the page through Stella’s adult world of workaholism and messy relations with her boss.
The merciless world of Irish media is seen through Laura’s perspective as a journalist at the Sunday Herald, where prowling editor Petrie makes sure her staff know they’re only as good as their last story. A journalist with the Sunday Independent, Hourican offers a wry voice on the newsroom and ethical issues when it comes to writing what you know.
Hourican lives in Dublin with her husband and three young children, the inspiration for her first book, How to Really Be a Mother, published in 2014. She has recently documented her experience receiving treatment for mouth cancer in her admirably frank cancer diary for the Sunday Independent. Her skill at observation and detail evident in her personal journalism is also present in her fiction.
With its emphasis on female friendship, aesthetics and the underbelly of society, there are parallels between her work and that of the Cork author Louise O’Neill. The Privileged is a character-driven drama in the vein of Maeve Binchy, a Circle of Friends for the 21st century which offers a pitiful reflection on a boom-era society out for thrills and escapism.
Plot momentum is well maintained through Amanda’s descent, the birth of her daughter Dora, Laura’s efforts to cope with her mother’s death and a somewhat underdeveloped romantic subplot between Stella and college love James. The author’s voice is evident in parts – teenage girls riffing on Sisyphus, “Providence” intervening, forgivable Shakespearean quotes – with a tendency to lead the reader in certain description-heavy passages.
Elsewhere the details are spot on: “You know how Dublin can be. A small city, too few people playing too many roles in your life”; Stella snaps advice to her friends “like cards being dealt across a table”; Mrs O’Hagen hosts interminable posh lunches where “even the food seemed spiteful, plates of thin, sharp asparagus spears alongside cold slices of scallop and shrimp terrine”; Amanda sums up how it feels to be ravaged by those around her: “Do you know what I felt like? One of those tiny birds the French eat.” Such skill at portrayal is the hallmark of a quality writer, male or female.