Subscriber Only

This Happy by Niamh Campbell: The end of the affair

Book review: An affair continues to haunt in Niamh Campbell’s intricate, deftly written debut

This Happy
Author: Niamh Campbell
ISBN-13: 978-1474611664
Publisher: W&N
Guideline Price: £16.99

“Life does not have a narrative. This is only a way of choosing to see and usually for sinister purposes. To explain oneself and give substance to the greater dangerous lie of consensus and common sense.”

Sinister or not, the purpose of Niamh Campbell’s sharply written debut novel is to relate the experiences of one woman and what she has learned in her 30-odd years on this planet. The answer is a surprising amount of wisdom on human behaviour and relationships, the details of which Campbell gracefully unpacks.

There is little in the way of a plot, except that most natural of storylines: a character moving through time. The first-person narrator is Alannah, an Irishwoman who has moved back to Dublin after years in London. Told in seven parts in a non-linear fashion, the book takes in episodes from childhood and her parents’ divorce, life as a doctorate student, and an affair with an older man, which proves to be a formative, hard-to-get-over experience that ultimately results in a hasty marriage to another older man.

The quality of the writing in This Happy is top notch. Page after page of astute, deft observations keep the narrative buoyant, even when repetition of events threatens to drag it down. This repetition is deliberate, of course. Alannah’s college affair with writer Harry has left her damaged and unable to let go.

Although the present-day narrative is set in Dublin, where Alannah and her new husband start to get know each other properly after a whirlwind beginning, Alannah constantly refers back to the end of her affair with Harry, an enigmatic, largely charmless individual who treats her like a plaything and who ultimately goes back to his wife in a cowardly fashion, namely, silently, under cover of dark.

The hurt is still there, evidently, but with the distance of nearly a decade, Alannah relates it with a sardonic voice: “I suppose I have a better grasp now of middle-aged men. Of the extreme melancholy and longing which overtakes them and which they always believe to be original.”

The character is self-aware, owning her part in the affair: “It took a long time, you know, to get Harry into bed. Several dinners and strolls on the Heath. And when I finally did, I had to go circus-style: after wine, standing on my own bed in Borough and kicking off my shoes.”

As with Naoise Dolan's recent debut Exciting Times, it is hard to know who is using whom, but the age gap in This Happy (Harry is 20 years older) makes for a queasier dynamic. Campbell holds her own against her contemporaries, writers like Claire-Louise Bennett, Sally Rooney, Nicole Flattery and Lucy Sweeney Byrne, who have set a high bar at home and abroad for fast-paced, truth-laced fiction.

From its nicely ambiguous title onwards, This Happy is a layered and vibrant debut

Campbell was shortlisted this week for the 2020 Sunday Times Short Award, for a story that was first published in the Dublin Review. From Dublin herself, the author's short fiction and essays have also appeared in 3:AM, Banshee, gorse, Five Dials, and Tangerine. She was awarded a Next Generation literary bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland, and annual literary bursaries in 2018 and 2019. Her monograph on John McGahern, Sacred Weather, is published by Cork University Press.

From its nicely ambiguous title onwards, This Happy is a layered and vibrant debut. Campbell is great on setting, which allows her to switch between times and locations without confusing the reader. The novel is full of sensual, offbeat descriptions: “The night was still and otherworldly, smelling strongly of the sea, the several smells of the sea heaped or stepped and distinct – canine, decaying, bodily.”

Characterisation is another strength. Here is Alannah on Harry: “[He] was a man of the world, half feral and adaptable in the way of the truly rootless, mildly amoral cosmopolitan.” On her husband: “My husband was always late. He proposed to me, really, to get out of being held accountable, one evening, for being late – to get out of being held accountable for this and other things.” And on her father, in a memorable moment of clarity where she sees his narcissistic chatter for what it really is: “My father was frightened of me. He could not let me get a word in because what, in the world, might I say?”

Alannah herself is a refreshingly edgy creation who can lie beside her lover and think, “I don’t understand how a man can sleep like that. Don’t they worry what you will do, unsupervised?” Equally refreshing is the depiction of a woman who doesn’t underplay her intelligence and who speaks her mind even when it’s socially awkward.

In a line that has echoes of Sally Rooney’s title of the moment, Alannah is looking “to be quite simply a normal person, which is to say to exist as something other than a burning wisp of futile rage; to belong, to be loved, never ever abandoned again”.