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The Alternatives by Caoilinn Hughes: a superb novel about sisters doing it in style

This frequently hilarious read portrays the bonds of sisterhood as a messy, fluid and utterly human state of being

The Alternatives
The Alternatives
Author: Caoilinn Hughes
ISBN-13: 978-0861545865
Publisher: Oneworld
Guideline Price: £18.99

‘Superb’ is the only word for this novel of four brilliant Irish sisters navigating their way through the perverse challenges of late-stage capitalism.

Olwen, a geologist lecturing in Galway, broods over the climate crisis caused by the “needy, grabby, arsony, narcissists” that are humanity; Maeve, a celebrity chef in post-Brexit London, endlessly parries the toxic nationalism of English toffs by authoring cookbooks with titles such as Feasting on Scarcity; Rhona, a no-nonsense Trinity political scientist, is a new mother and a hot-topic expert in citizens’ assemblies; while Nell, a US-based philosopher, is an avatar of academic precarity slowly and mysteriously losing the use of her legs (there is a metaphor if ever there was one).

It is a point of familial pride that all four have PhDs (well, Maeve’s is honorary) but none have husbands.

Successfully portraying a quartet of protagonists as complex and lively as this is a challenge to which Caoilinn Hughes, in this, her third novel, rises to with aplomb. The Doctors Flattery are defined by a shared teenage trauma, the loss of their parents, but they have each processed this event in radically different but nonetheless realistic ways.


They have buried themselves in special interests. They self-medicate with sex and drugs as they deem necessary. But, more than anything, they are unafraid to exude their wilful intelligence throughout. They have book smarts, for sure, but also people skills and practicality to varying degrees.

Call it idealistic wish fulfilment, call it competence porn, but one of the genuine satisfactions here is in seeing these characters square up to problems both personal and professional, especially that of the novel’s inciting incident: Olwen cycling off into the night and seeming to disappear.

In unpacking that mystery, the reader is treated to the other great pleasure of The Alternatives: its prose. For there is an athletic and commanding wordsmithery on display in this book. It is ingenious without ever being clever in the tiresome sense. It is judicious writing in which one can luxuriate, a case-study of logophilia playfully punctuated by vernacular non sequiturs and undercut by irreverent asides on topical anxieties such as seawalls, EV charging ports or whether Tom Hiddleston will ever follow us on Instagram.

Barrelling along this unapproved road between drama and comedy affords The Alternatives an appreciable verve as Hughes brilliantly describes undergraduate classes in Earth science or serves up pear jelly to unbearable lords, barons and whatnots around the rosebushes of British ancestral estates. In all cases, her language is inseparable from the righteous tenacity and occasional (delightful!) half-barminess of the four sisters themselves. In all cases it rings true.

That said, the writing is likely not the first thing that will jump out at someone flicking through this novel in the bookstore. No, the distinguishing formal trait of The Alternatives is instead a pair of long stretches in which Hughes has the bravery – the sheer artistic gall – to abandon the virtuoso prose of elsewhere for playscript. This choice may infuriate some readers, and more power to Hughes for her willingness to do so, but it also demands our respect.

It radiates a kind of neo-Joycean smash-the-form energy; it allows the author to break through the conventionally invisible textual boundary that mediates between the story and the reader. The estrangement this phase change engenders serves to strip the narrative back to its barest essentials and so places us into a compassionate intimacy with these characters. We are, abruptly, right alongside the sisters as they peck at each other’s choices, change dirty nappies and debate the likes of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of care. Multitasking at its finest!

Yet the playscript sections, especially their lonely setting of Leitrim abodes open to us like dollhouses, make clear that these four exceptionally realised characters are, in many ways, still acting out parts that originate in their childhood. Could it be that their individual achievements have clouded them to their need for collective healing? Or even collective action? If the book has a lesson for us, it is perhaps that. For The Alternatives is, in that way, a generous novel. It is solicitous. It carefully frames, in its story of one idiosyncratic family, a snapshot of the chaotic times affecting all of us.

Expect academic work about The Alternatives; expect diagrams locating the four sisters along axes of interiority or diasporic inclinations (and, if that seems like it has been sketched out already, you might not be wrong…). But lest that makes the proceedings sound too dry, also expect a timely, sly and frequently hilarious read, a rollicking story that portrays the bonds of sisterhood not as an idealised constant but as a messy, fluid and utterly human state of being. Bravo!