One Star Awake by Andrew Meehan: Blackout in the city of light

A debut novel from an Irish author shines on the subjects of trauma and memory loss

One Star Awake
One Star Awake
Author: Andrew Meehan
ISBN-13: 9781848406278
Publisher: New Island
Guideline Price: €13.95

For as long as she can remember, Eva Hand has valued the opinions of others more than her own. In Andrew Meehan's topsy-turvy, beguiling debut One Star Awake, this turns out to be not very long indeed. Protagonist Eva is suffering from retrograde amnesia and can barely form opinions about what kind of food she likes, let alone how she feels about family, friends and former lovers.

After an undisclosed trauma, Eva finds herself in a Parisian restaurant, Gravy, where she apparently works as a kitchen hand. Her memories only go back six months: “It was more a matter of distinguishing what I had forgotten from what I had never known.” Her life revolves around menial tasks in the restaurant, work that Eva relishes as it keeps her from thinking about the abyss. Kindly chef Ségo and sommelier Daniel tend to her like a wounded animal. What or who has caused these wounds is the question Meehan sets out to answer in his inventive, fast-paced novel.

The twinned themes of memory and trauma are to the fore in a most unusual rendering that quietly grips the reader from the opening pages. There are echoes of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with its exploration of memory and loss. Is it better to forget something entirely if the pain of remembering is too great? One Star Awake mixes fantasy with scenes of brutal reality as it explores this question.

Rake-thin and badly bruised, Eva is “as substantial as a ribbon” and “desperately incapable in any social situation”. She reads about her former self in a diary and surmises of her relationship with married man Jerome that she was “an expert in self-delusion and by the sounds of it very little else”. When a chance sighting at a patisserie later reintroduces Jerome into her life, he tells her she was usually drunk when they were together, “more out of it than some sad safari park lion”.


Thoughtful and needy

Whether Eva can trust the account of a man who is "efficient as a mugger" is one of the novel's many mysterious threads. From her vulnerable perspective, everyone is a suspect in One Star Awake. Lover Daniel is by turns thoughtful and needy, meddling in Eva's past without her permission; Ségo is uncharacteristically charitable; a hilariously indiscreet psychiatrist needs a refresher on his profession's code of ethics; even Eva's Irish parents – a source of much comedy – have darker undertones. Her father is a larger-than-life presence, a man who refers to his cancer as Tony Blair and believes that as a parent he has "nothing to answer for".

With Eva’s first-person episodes, her old diary entries and sections narrated by Daniel in the third person, the book feels busy at times. While it furthers the plot, Daniel’s perspective lacks the vibrancy of Eva’s voice and ultimately peters out. Titles break up the various sections but are not particularly interesting in their own right. In a novel of multiple twists and surprises, some strands get lost, notably Daniel’s relationship with his parents and the subplot of an immigrant who kills himself.

It is Eva's story, or "Unstory" to use Meehan's clever term, that proves the most compelling. Paris comes to life through her reawakening senses: the "marzipan-scented Left Bank"; a city where people live "an infinity of sadness". But despite the amount of trauma Eva undergoes, it is humour rather than sadness that prevails. Meehan is a naturally comic writer, in the vein of Kevin Barry and Colin Barrett, who sees humour in grim, airless situations.

'Licking the same ice cream'

A heated reunion with Jerome is fraught with the past: “We made fast work of each other in the end. I think I preferred sex when I was in a bad mood anyway. Two angry people licking the same ice cream.” When Eva tracks his wife Ghislaine down and befriends her – and even adopts her name – there is much humour in the circumstances, augmented by Ghislaine’s Franglais. Convinced that her husband is having an affair, she tells Eva she has problems sleeping: “Tonight I try to count the muttons.”

Meehan's short fiction has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Moth, Banshee and Winter Papers. Prior to writing full-time, he was head of development at the Irish Film Board, where he worked on films including Song of the Sea and What Richard Did.

What Eva did, or what was done to her, makes for a gripping plot in One Star Awake. Her journey to discover who she is pays homage to a literary great of her adopted city as she tells Daniel that there's no such thing as lost time: "It's not a mystery . . . I was caught up in a world that was too much for me."

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts