Now Legwarmers review: A rural Irish tale of mismatched parts

It’s unclear how seriously we are supposed to take the teenage protagonist of Pascal O’Loughlin’s novel

Pascal O’Loughlin. Photograph: thatthingyoupluck

Pascal O’Loughlin. Photograph: thatthingyoupluck

Sat, Aug 25, 2018, 06:00

   
 

Book Title:
Now Legwarmers

ISBN-13:
978-1999797416

Author:
Pascal O’Loughlin

Publisher:
Henningham Family Press

Guideline Price:
£12.99

A missing girl. A talking horse’s head. A lone ghost on a country road. A handsome hermit, living in a gardener’s shed. David Bowie. Kate Bush. Pascal O’Loughlin’s Now Legwarmers is filled with evocative imagery, mysterious subtext and 1980s musical references, and while you desperately want all of it to swell together like a well-trained orchestra, the novel never quite manages it. Far from being an orchestra, O’Loughlin’s debut feels like a jumble of instruments being played in totally different rooms.

The book follows John, a teenager with the odds stacked against him. He’s constantly battling his weight, his sexuality, his gender, his recently widowed mother, and worst of all, Clonduff, the sleepy Irish village he and his mother have just moved to. It is always raining.

The one shining light in all of this is Angela, the local cool girl who’s just a little bit older, and has thus taken it upon herself to introduce the sheltered John to sex, smoking and seances. Because she’s a precocious girl in a drizzly novel set in 1980s rural suburbia, we are to assume that underneath her fun-loving demeanour lies a tragic backstory of sexual abuse. It should be said: O’Loughlin plays fast and loose with misery and abuse here. A dead sister is casually brought up and never mentioned again; a character called Paul the Rapist appears and disappears; a folk legend about a woman being strangled and thrown in a lake is what passes for idle chit-chat. What is meant to be poignantly sad instead comes across as turgid and depressing. It becomes difficult to sympathise with John, despite feeling as though you should.

Delightful insights

It’s a shame, really, that the layering upon layering of tragedy mutes the narrative, because there are some truly delightful insights here. It deals with an interesting chapter of Irish modern history, one that is focused on neither town nor country but the halfway point of midsize rural villages. Disused pig sheds and abandoned farmhouses dot the landscape, bachelor farmers pass on with no one to leave their plots to. People still go to Mass on Sundays, but church is a rickety old prefab. Ireland is in the throes of an economic recession, and the characters of Now Legwarmers are in an emotional one.

John avidly “prays to God I’m not bent” while his mother wrestles with life as a single mother. Angela, whose sister Marion goes missing early in the novel, tries to tiptoe between childishness and vampish womanhood. Everything is changing here, and the change brings about a supernatural shift in Clonduff – specifically, a decapitated horse called Rotting Dead and a smoking ghost called FlanaganBranagan. The Flann O’Brien reference here is interesting, and like The Third Policeman, ghosts interact with the plot and then enter John’s teenage prose.

Adrian Mole

There’s an Adrian Mole quality to John, who is obsessed with a rash on his “penis and testicles” – the phrase “penis and testicles” comes up a lot – and there’s fun to be had in his adolescent delusions of grandeur. He plans to write a Planet of the Apes-esque novel with Angela until they get bored. He is besotted with Gloria Gaynor, and resents anyone who doesn’t understand the mastery of Kate Bush. But it’s never quite clear whether or not O’Loughlin sees the funny side of his character, or whether he intends his mopey internal monologue to be taken seriously. “The word for shirt and the word for skirt are nearly the same but the difference is huge between them,” notes John. “It is the difference between a penis and a vagina.”

Well, indeed.

  • Caroline O’Donoghue is the author of Promising Young Women