Reviewed by Annabel
After the searing, taboo-breaking storyline of O’Neil’s second novel, Asking For It (reviewed here), a young adult story about consent, teenage sex-shaming and the fallout from it, Almost Love, O’Neill’s first adult novel, could seem almost underwhelming in comparison.
But this is a slow-burn drama, written for a different audience. There’s not the same need to get the message over via the shocks that kept coming in Asking For It. The relationships within the pages of Almost Love are between consenting adults; they’re complicated and pose interesting questions.
It begins with ‘Now’:
Sarah lay on the bed, watching Oisin as he slept. This is it, she thought as she looked at his face, his slack-jawed drooling mouth. This is the man I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.
He’d got in very late after business drinks. Now awake, she fobs off his advances to his grumbling ‘You’re never in the mood anymore.’ Immediately, we get the feeling that their relationship is running cool and that she feels she’ll be accepting second-best if she stays with Oisin, hinting of having lost ‘the one’ in the past.
Oisin and Sarah live in his parent’s spare house. His mother, Oonagh, is a flamboyant and successful artist, the house is decorated with some of her paintings. These, her habit of popping in, and having more than enough money, all serve to make Sarah feel rather claustrophobic in her own home. However, she decides to go visit Oonagh and William in their mansion. On the way she stops to look at the sea, and she bumps into ‘him’. She and Matthew go for a coffee, have a stilted conversation, then part.
Three years. We can’t break up, Sarah, he had said to her, three years ago, when she decided to stand still and to ask him for more. …
We can’t break up because we were never in a real relationship in the first place.
We move back to ‘Then’ – when Sarah met Matthew for the first time. Sarah is a new art teacher, and she meets Matthew Brennan at his son’s parents’ evening. Matthew is a big man, tall, burly, attractive, forty-something, owner of a big estate agency – a rich businessman. Before she knows it, Sarah is sucked into a secret affair with him, meeting in an out of the way hotel for sex. Although he’s separated from Florence, she’s the daughter of the former premier, and he can’t be seen to be with anyone else yet – at least that’s his excuse.
Sarah goes along with it, but you know that for her the lust is going to turn into something else, it’s not love, it’s obsession.
Neither of her best friends, artist Fionn whom she shares a house with and Aisling back home near her dad in Dunfinnan, understand her obsessive and secretive relationship with Matthew. We already know it’s not going to last. When she finally tells her dad, even he’s heard of Brennan but can only think in terms of meeting the chap who just might marry his daughter, little knowing that that’ll never happen.
As we alternate between ‘then’ and ‘now’ we build up the bigger picture of Sarah’s state of mind her younger self’s obsessive desire for an older man. a user who doesn’t love her, and her current relationship with Oisin who loves her, but she’s pushing away. Sarah is utterly self-absorbed and totally oblivious to the lives and feelings of those around her, using and abusing the good will of her friends so much, she is in danger of losing them for good also.
Sarah is selfish, and thus a hard character to love. It’s a brave author that bases a novel around someone so unsympathetic, but Sarah’s story does ring true. There’s a sad inevitability to events, yet one still hopes that she’ll snap out of her blinkered state. All through, her own art suffers too, as she sees herself as inferior to Fionn and Oonagh, and she channels herself into her obsessive relationships instead.
There’s been some great writing coming out of Ireland by young Irishwomen at the moment, Lisa McInerney’s working class black comedy The Glorious Heresies and Sally Rooney’s fresh and free-flowing Conversations with Friends. O’Neill is carving out her own niche typified by the honesty in her writing and, having made the move towards writing for adult readers is one to watch. The pace of this novel may be a little uneven, and her protagonist is certainly hard to love, but I enjoyed this complicated picture of Almost Love.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books (her personal blog is here).
Louise O’Neill, Almost Love, (Riverrun, 2018). 978-1784298869, 320pp., hardback.
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