Desire. Is any force in the world more powerful, more traumatising or more capable of making us act like psychopaths? It is the central theme of Belinda McKeon’s second novel, a book set for the most part between 1997 and 1998 and in so few locations – Trinity College Dublin, a flat on Baggot Street and a couple of pubs – that one can imagine a theatrical adaptation working rather well.
It is the story of a friendship built over the course of a year, a friendship that is as deep and heartfelt as it is all-consuming and unhealthy, between Longford-born Catherine Reilly, studying English and art history, and James Flynn, a force of nature, tall, red-haired and given to spontaneous public outbursts of hilarity that mortify others but only add to his charm. They are brought together by their differences – her inhibition and his lack of self-awareness – for James is the type of person who says aloud “the stuff that, Catherine now realised, she had always thought you were meant to keep silent”.
From the moment this pair of opposites meet, they connect with a haste and intensity that can only lead to disaster. Catherine is a virgin, her only experience of romance the occasional shift with any available boy in any open nightclub. James is similarly inexperienced, but he is also gay when it was not very easy to be gay, when the chances of being demeaned, bullied or physically assaulted were higher than they are now.
Still, some things don’t change, for when, later in the novel, James condemns a moment of treachery by pointing out to his betrayer “that every day there was still the fear; not being able to hold his boyfriend’s hand in the street, for instance – did she have any idea what that felt like? . . . Probably not, because she was one of those people, wasn’t she? She was one of those people who begrudged them every precious scrap they had”, it’s difficult not to feel there is an equivalence being drawn with the more conservative elements of Irish society who, over recent months, have displayed a similar lack of compassion for anyone who does not conform to their narrow view of human sexuality.
Anyone who has ever been in this position will recognise how painful James’s predicament is, the terrible anguish and self-loathing that comes from going to nightclubs with friends and watching them hook up with random girls, while they are left alone, wondering whether they can make a discreet exit in time for the last Nitelink home. “Lonely: that was the word he had written over and over. Alone: that was another. Never: that had been another.” McKeon captures James’s isolation perfectly as he becomes the centre of a youthful group, the clown, the one who everyone loves but no one wants to sleep with.
“Sometimes, Catherine,” he writes in a letter from Germany, “it is just too fucking hard. Too fucking hard. I don’t know. I try not to, but it is so hard not to feel . . .”
Of course these emotions have been written about before, and while McKeon brings genuine depth to her characters’ lives, it is with a twist of the story, a twist that one can see coming but that remains effective, that the novel becomes truly original. For we are accustomed to stories of the gay man who falls in love with the straight man and is tortured by the impossibility of a relationship, but what about the straight woman who falls in love with the gay man? What of her pain and her desire to change his very nature?
Here is where Tender takes a darker turn, as Catherine, who is needy and selfish but essentially decent, finds her feelings for James to be so strong that not only does she want more from him than he can give but cannot bear the idea of him being close to anyone else. "She wanted him to be only her friend. She wanted the best of his attention; she wanted the highest pitch of his energy . . . And here were all the others, stealing this ground from her, and she resented them for it, and she resented James, for being taken in."
As authentic as it is painful
Interviewing a fictional Irish novelist for Trinity News, Catherine tells him that he writes sex "very well", a line that embarrasses her for how awkwardly it comes out, but McKeon in turn writes longing very well, for every page of this novel is drenched in it and it is as authentic as it is painful. When, after an unexpected sexual encounter, she remarks about James that "it was touch; he was desperate for it", the line jumps off the page. It's one of the best in the book, summing up in eight words what it's like to be young, to be alone and – to put it plainly – to be totally horny.
It’s often remarked that readers have been gifted with an extraordinary number of talented new Irish writers in recent years, and there is some truth in this, although perhaps it has reached saturation point where every new writer is acclaimed on their first novel or story collection and every new book is considered a masterpiece when it is simply a good start.
The mutual backslapping and hyperbolic endorsements do no service to either readers or writers; they have allowed mediocrity to flourish rather than encouraging talent to develop quietly. Every young Irish writer is the new Joyce, Beckett or Trevor, when in truth it takes decades of work to earn even a gemstone from one of these crowns.
And so it is with a heavy heart as a critic, but a happy one as a reader, that I say that Tender is the best Irish novel I've read since The Spinning Heart, a work rich with wisdom, truth and beauty. There are no gimmicks, no deliberately eccentric characters and no wildly overblown prose masquerading as poetry. Reading it, the novelist that came to mind time and again was Anne Tyler, one of the greatest storytellers alive, whose characters arrive on the page like human beings, things happen to them, they react to these things, and then life continues. I can scarcely think of higher praise than to say that Belinda McKeon could be our Anne Tyler. There is simply not a false note anywhere in Tender.
John Boyne’s most recent novel, A History of Loneliness, published by Black Swan, is available in paperback now