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Slant by Katherine O’Donnell: Truth and fiction merge as an Irish lesbian finds her tribe and then loses it

Fiftysomething Ro McCarthy is burnt out as the marriage referendum consumes the nation, causing her to revisit her past

Slant
Author: Katherine O’Donnell
ISBN-13: 978-1848408388
Publisher: New Island
Guideline Price: €16.95

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” The book is prefaced with these words of Emily Dickenson, and initially you might wonder if Slant is a memoir, a novel or something in between. It opens with diary-like candour and a conversational style as its narrator canvasses for the marriage referendum in Cork 2015.

Fiftysomething Ro McCarthy is burnt out; to put herself back together she needs to revisit her past, to what broke her and formed her – and so the story begins in 1984, a bildungsroman of a young Irish lesbian who leaves Cork to make a life in Boston.

O’Donnell captures the headiness of twenty-something angst, sexual adventure and uncertainty, of sweet melancholy and bouts of joie de vivre in the unguarded, questioning and tender voice of Ro, as she finds her tribe, and meets the young gay men who will become her friends for life.

Her love affair with Jenny is a fulcrum in the book, and it’s here when the writing has flashes of lyricism, through their letter writing, their common denominator of Emily Dickenson, and later through a mature and rather beautiful understanding of each other’s limitations. The otherwise guileless, open-hearted narration, coupled with Ro’s emotional vulnerability, make the onset of the Aids epidemic all the more poisonous.

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The narrative finds its power and depth here. Faced with a society that turns its back on the gay men who have become her family, Ro’s grief and anger bloom: “That’s really how it was back then. The world did not deign to notice all the dying boys.”

Ro turns activist and becomes one of the veins of communication, countering mainstream media, which paints untrue and frightening portraits of the gay community. She marches with life-affirming joy in a Pride march with the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation, but later, when she marches again with the same group in the St Patrick’s Day parade, insults and bottles fly from Irish-Americans, their faces ugly with hatred.

But it’s love that begins and ends the novel, and the book concludes poetically, coming full circle to when truth again seems to be wearing the clothes of fiction, or perhaps the other way around, or maybe, as the title and Emily Dickenson suggest, something altogether more oblique.