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The Amendments by Niamh Mulvey: What it means to be female through different generations

Novel with big cast of characters bursts with things to say but needs more character description and less social contextualising

The Amendments
The Amendments
Author: Niamh Mulvey
ISBN-13: 978-1529079852
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £16.99

What do you do if your girlfriend wants a baby but you don’t? Nell loves her partner Adrienne, but as they sit in a therapist’s office in London, she confesses that she does not know if she can bring herself to become a mother, with all that has happened in her past.

With that, Niamh Mulvey’s compelling debut novel flips the reverse switch and brings us back to the late 1990s, and to Nell’s schooldays in Ireland. The narrative flips again into the early 1980s, to Nell’s mother, Dolores, then a young woman making her way. As it moves, it also focuses on a host of other characters, including Martina, a spiritual mentor to Nell as a teenager.

It’s a busy narrative, sometimes engrossing and sometimes overly chaotic – there are too many characters stuffed into these 300-odd pages and too many shifting perspectives – but what unites the stories is Mulvey’s focus on what it means to be female through different generations. Her characters are uncertain about themselves and tentative about spirituality, perceived norms and the rights and wrongs of social change.

There are many smart, perceptive lines in this novel. Mulvey has a sharp eye for details that point up larger truths. When Nell becomes the director of her school play, she notes that they are doing Shakespeare because, while the boys the previous year had done a Tarantino-inspired take on the 1916 Rising, “there was a sense that the girls had to be held to a higher standard than the boys[…] a play directed by a girl needed to be more proper and enjoy the stamp of some already existing authority”.


As Nell, Dolores and others unpick the cliches and contradictions that make up Irish life, the novel offers sidelong, telling glances at the boom-to-bust cycle of the Celtic Tiger; the Repeal the Eighth movement; the X case in 1992; and the 2015 marriage referendum.

Mulvey doesn’t deal in stereotypes: her characters falter for complex reasons that they struggle to explain even to themselves. There are times when you long for more simple, painterly scenes: more character description and less social contextualising. But Mulvey is a writer with a lot to say, and The Amendments is an opening salvo from a novelist of grit and power.

Nadine O'Regan

Nadine O'Regan

Nadine O'Regan is acting Magazine editor and a contributor to The Irish Times