Set against the semi-urban backdrop of the River Liffey in 1980, this novel about a 10-year-old girl who lives with her separated mother and two brothers unfolds through the narrator’s observations and interactions, and her naive interpretations of adult conversations and behaviour.
You is the debut novel by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (sometimes published as Nuala O’Conor outside Ireland). She rose to major prominence last year with her highly praised second novel The Closet of Savage Memories. However I’d never heard of You till I read a review last year by Cathy at 746 Books. It immediately went on my TBR and I was determined to read it this Reading Ireland Month/ Begorrathon (hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging).
The child narrator is a notoriously hard voice to get right. That adage of film and TV about never working with children should really be extended to all the arts. While many can get the language of a child correct, it is far more difficult to get the mindset and thought process of a child right. It is just so different to that of an adult, and while we were all once children we often forget how minds worked back then…the things we found funny, our understanding of things adults said and in general the way we view the world. Ní Chonchúir not only manages it, she excels. She thoroughly inhabits the mind and thought process of a 10 year old girl struggling to make sense of the world around her.
This is a character driven book. While there are significant events, they are not the focus merely the backdrop for our unnamed narrators life. Everything is told from the perspective of the narrator, an unnamed 10 yr old girl who inhabits that strange world between childhood and adolescence. Her mother, while clearly loving her children, struggles with her own problems of depression and alcoholism. Our narrator therefore is often forced to take on an adult role in the care of her siblings, giving her a maturity unusual in a child. At the same time it is clear she struggles to understand a number of more adult events around her, and her reactions to these events are typical of a child. For example, running away to visit her friend with no warning is a reasonable arrangement since her father’s girlfriend doesn’t want them around. Events are also described with the clarity of a child though flit between the substantial and trivial elements of an event, with the trivial often given as much weight as the important elements in that manner typical of a child. A tragic death is dealt with it in a poignant and touching fashion, though mixed in with the things which seem important to a child; what she is wearing, ought she wear her communion gloves of which she is clearly very proud, the food served during the wake, all as she struggles to come to term with the event.
The other characters are all equally interesting. This is a book filled with flawed people, trying to do their best but often struggling with their own issues….in other words normal human beings recognisable to us all.
This is an exceptional debut. Ni Chonchuir’s command of language and her characterisation are outstanding. While set in the Dublin of 1980, it transcends both time and place. I would highly recommend this book to anyone.
Now I’m off to add every other book by this author to my ever increasing TBR.