There’s an Oulipian game I like to play when reviewing the work of young female Irish writers: can I avoid any reference to Sally Rooney? To my mind, it’s reductive to lump distinct voices together based solely on age, nationality and gender.
Catherine Prasifka, as it happens, is the sister-in-law of the author-who-shall-not-be-named. A standing ovation, then, to her and her publicity team for admirably resisting the temptation to ask Rooney for a blurb or even mentioning the connection in the marketing materials of Prasifka’s debut novel.
“I kept the book as far away from her as possible,” Prasifka told The Irish Times. “She didn’t know I had a book until after I’d signed with my agent and she didn’t read it until after the book deal.”
Fortunately, she doesn’t need any sprinkling of Rooney’s fairy dust: she makes her own magic. In the seriously good None of This Is Serious, the 26-year-old author conveys what it’s like to be a young woman today navigating life in Dublin and online.
Sophie is a recent university grad living at home and trying to figure out what comes next. Her friends, many of whom are moving abroad, seem to have it all worked out, as does Hannah, her high-achieving twin sister. Sophie, meanwhile, spends her days blasting out her CV, doom-scrolling and texting two men; her nights out often end in binge drinking.
When a mysterious purple crack appears in the sky, “barbershop quartets are back and singing about the crack” and memes abound, but scientists can’t say what caused it or what effects it might have. It’s a clever device by Prasifka, who has an MLitt in fantasy, to capture ambient anxiety. “The whole world is fractured,” Sophie observes. “This crack is just one more thing on the list.”
Amid the panic and meta-analysis about the panic, life continues, and eventually the news cycle moves on; “the apocalypse came and went”.
The book’s cover image is an illustration of the fractured face of an everywoman – referencing the crack in the sky and the splintering of the self across various media. Contemporary authors face a challenge in integrating text messages and social media into the form of the novel: ignoring modern modes of communication can feel like a misrepresentation of life, but readers don’t want reading a book to feel like digital distraction.
Prasifka seamlessly incorporates the countless ways the smartphone infiltrates our days and reflect on the pitfalls of life lived through the filter of a screen. “I feel closer to him in cyberspace than I do in real life,” Sophie remarks of one of her love interests. “I feel closer to myself in cyberspace as well.” It’s as if a fish is aware it’s in water but remains powerless to jump out of the tank.
While the existential angst of young people may seem like well-trodden ground, Prasifka puts her own spin on it, and what begins as a coming-of-age story with a love triangle grows into a more sophisticated reflection on our times. She is an astute observer of the social dynamics of her generation: “The conversation breaks down into an argument that no one really wants to have, where everyone’s arguing the same side, as is our custom.”
In an interesting narrative technique, Prasifka uses speech marks for other characters but Sophie’s dialogue is integrated into the text, such that in her first-person telling we sometimes don’t know if she is speaking or thinking.
None of This Is Serious is laced with subtle humour. When Hannah offers to loan her money, Sophie wryly concludes that “she’s definitely selling nudes”. Yet the book does not shy away from taking on big issues, including climate change, eating disorders, sexual assault, trolling and the economic precarity faced by Gens Y and Z.
Although its themes are universal, a lingering Catholic guilt identifies the book as Irish. Sophie is still plagued by the influence of a priest in primary school who taught that premarital sex is a sin and recalls accompanying her best friend Grace to England for an abortion before the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Grace’s boyfriend “left her after she refused to carry his child”, we learn. “He was too Catholic to support her decision, but not Catholic enough to not f**k her.”
With the novel’s allusions to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, I worried about the fate that might befall Sophie and her twin. While Prasifka’s ending is thankfully not as tragic as Poe’s, the topics she tackles show that some of this is very serious indeed.