Optimism in the second person
FICTION: ARMINTA WALLACEreviews YouBy Nuala Ní Chonchúir New Island, 186pp. €10.40
THE CHILD NARRATOR appears to be a literary device with which Irish authors have a close and personal relationship. Off the top of the head it’s possible to recall half a dozen, all of whom, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the limitations imposed by this deliberately restrictive narrative technique have emerged as unique, beautifully crafted variations on a theme.
The young protagonist of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamasoffers a blithely innocent view of the Holocaust. Emma Donoghue’s Man Booker-shortlisted Room is buoyantly narrated by five-year-old Jack, whose entire life has been spent in prison with his mother, who has been kidnapped, incarcerated and subjected to repeated sexual abuse. Colum McCann’s short story collection Everything in This Country Mustfinds a trio of troubled teenagers wrestling with the political chaos in the North alongside their own burgeoning adulthood.
Hugo Hamilton’s memoir The Speckled Peoplesees its young author grappling with a complex, and complicating, Irish-German identity. Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Hais a sparkling tale of preteen tumult in the fictional Dublin suburb of Barrytown, while Christine Dwyer Hickey’s Tattydelves into the murky depths of a difficult working-class Dublin childhood.
What these six books have in common is that they’ve all achieved a high degree of critical and popular success. Doyle won the Booker for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha;Donoghue may well do the same with Room. Hamilton’s The Speckled Peoplehas become the standard against which memoirs, and not just Irish memoirs, are measured. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamasis a legend.
So Nuala Ní Chonchúir – poet, short story writer and author of the debut novel You– no pressure, eh?
Right from the opening paragraph it’s clear that Ní Chonchúir has great confidence in her 10-year-old narrator. She’s confident enough in herself, moreover, to employ one of the trickiest variations of narrative technique, the one that, as the novel’s title suggests, turns “I” into “you”. It has great potential for awkwardness, this second-person perspective. But in Ní Chonchúir’s hands it draws the reader in as smoothly and surely as an iPhone’s compass turns the screen to face north.
“Your ma used up all the juice again. Last week you asked could she get two cartons of orange from now on, instead of only one, because there was never any for you and your brother Liam. She went mad, shouting at you so much that you could see frothy bits at the sides of her mouth, like the scurf that Liam calls Guinness water that floats on the top of the river.”
Ní Chonchúir says that Youis a continuation of the short story Anything Strange or Startling, which appeared in her first collection, The Wind Across the Grass. Perhaps that’s why almost all of the essential elements of the tale are to be found in that opening paragraph: the tight budget, the alcohol, the unpredictable mother, the narrator (who is never named) and her brother Liam, the humour, the shouting matches, the river. Add the separated father with his new family, and the baby – who has “a different daddy . . . a mad, happy laugh and lovely brown skin” – and the picture is complete.
You may, however, have the wrong picture in your head. This is not a misery movie but a heart-warmer. It’s a sketch of an Irish family in an urban suburb in the 1980s, dashed off quickly in the impatient, sometimes sulky, often heartbreakingly open hand of a 10-year-old. The characters are viewed, warts and all, as fragile, vulnerable, icky, even ridiculous. But when the chips are down they turn up trumps.
There’s a tragedy. There’s an incident right out of an Enid Blyton book, or some other classic children’s adventure. There’s an ending that seems almost outlandishly optimistic – until one realises that optimism itself has come to seem outlandish amid our raging sea of recessionist gloom. For this alone – for offering just a glimmer of confidence in our children and the future they’ll create, if we let them – You deserves to find a place in our pantheon of much-admired, beautifully crafted variations on a theme.