A first love that involves "stupidly blue eyes", a Romeo and Juliet storyline and a guitar serenade in the moonlight as a light snow falls. No Filter, the debut young adult novel from Orlagh Collins, is not for the hardened cynics, or even those mildly allergic to grand romantic gestures and Hollywood endings. The novel tells the story of 16-year-old Emerald Rutherford, who is reluctantly shipped off from her Somerset home to spend the summer with her granny in a seaside Dublin town.
Emerald fears the summer away from her social media-obsessed group of friends will be boring, but the circumstances that have prompted her exile are far from mundane. Embroiled in a bullying scandal at school, she comes home one day to find her mother unconscious after a suicide attempt. In a few short scenes, Collins covers Emerald's first aid heroism, her mother's admittance to a rehab clinic, a number of frustratingly opaque conversations with her secretive father and a flight to Ireland before Emerald has time to tell her friends what's happened.
No Filter is a fast-paced, easy read about tough subjects that at times warrant more depth. Where it shines is in its two romantic leads and the vibrancy of a first love blossoming over an action-packed summer. Escaping from the strange silence of her grandmother's home, Em meets local boy Liam and his lively bunch of friends down by the beach shelters. There's a convincingly contemporary feel to Emerald and Liam's relationship, from the vivid scene at the shelters where Em saves the boys from the wrath of gardaí, to a party where Emerald takes an ectasy tablet as Liam looks on in horror and awe. Dialogue between Liam and his friends is pinpoint and funny, full of oneupmanship and bluster. The banter between Liam and Emerald also convinces, with a clear sense of the highs and lows of teenage romance.
The pair give their individual perspectives on events in alternating chapters and each beguiles in their own way. Although Emerald laments the superficiality of her world back home, where her friends mercilessly rate each other online, she emerges as a thoughtful young woman who cares more about others than herself. Liam is a modern take on an old tale – the son who has to make up for his father's failures. In No Filter, failure comes in the epic shape of the property crash that left the Byrne family bankrupt. Liam's dreams of being a musician disappear as his father forces him towards a degree in quantity surveying.
There are subtle hints in the first half that a mystery is unfolding along with the romance: why did Emerald’s father leave as soon as he dropped her; why is Grandma on edge; why haven’t they visited her in five years? This nuance is later let down by a rushed reveal and a feeling of incredulity over the fact that tech-savvy Emerald (or her bitchy group of friends) wouldn’t already have sussed the big secret.
Social media culture
Collins is sharp on the social media culture of teenage friendships – “Obsessive Comparison Disorder” – but she tries to pack too much into her book as she seeks to comment on its negative impact. Bullying, social media shaming, depression, suicide, fraught child-parent relationships, the property crash and a burgeoning romance vie for attention with each other. Grating chapter titles add little, “Settling a wobbly glass”, except when they ruin suspense: “Twenty seconds of insane courage”. Slippages in voice are also evident, with Liam noticing his mother’s “yogic breath” and Emerald describing Liam’s “languid stance”. The Hollywood twists and ending feel twee after the edginess of earlier chapters.
Born in Dublin, Collins is a former head of physical production at Pathé Films, where she oversaw films including The Magic Roundabout, Millions, Breakfast on Pluto and The Queen. She co-produced the British Independent Film award-winning documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten and Mary Shelley. Her debut novel has some nice cinematic touches such as its vibrant characterisation, seaside setting and summer romance storyline. The episodic nature of the narrative and a tendency to shift not only scenes but countries abruptly are traits of the medium that don't work quite so well in fiction.
Authors like Sarah Dessen, Meg Rosoff, Julia Green and Rainbow Rowell have made a name for themselves by telling gritty coming-of-age stories centred on first loves and second chances. Their books go deep into the adolescent psyche to explore issues from mental health to underage sex to grief. No Filter charts similar terrain, though not as vibrantly. The myriad scenes flick like a showreel, never fully delving into the messiness behind bankruptcy or suicide. In the words of its Instagram-loving protagonist Emerald, it captures a pivotal time in two teenagers' lives "in Reyes, or possibly Sierra".