Shiny Prize Season – Ordinary Human Failings by Megan Nolan – Women’s Prize for Fiction

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Review by Annabel

I enjoyed Nolan’s debut, Acts of Desperation, published in 2022, which was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Author Award. It is a fine example of the now rather overworked ‘disaster woman’ trope and got her compared inevitably with Sally Rooney – personally, I preferred it to Conversations With Friends.

Nolan now lives in London, and maybe this has added an edge to her writing, allowing her to address both sides of the story in Ordinary Human Failings, a heart-breaking family saga, set on a South London estate with flashbacks to earlier in Waterford in Ireland, and the story fed to the outside world. It begins in 1990:

Down below in Skyler Square the trouble was passing quickly from door to door, mothers telling mothers, not speaking aloud but somehow saying: baby gone, bad man, wild animal.

As this is going on at the estate, we meet Carmel, sitting in a cafe, thinking about past relationships – about Derek whom she’d fallen for when they lived back in Waterford, and about the grimness of her life now. We change points of views to Tom, a young journalist, who had been out with Ruth from the estate, which, by association, grants him first press on the scene after the body of three-year-old Mia Enright is found by the bins. He’s onto a scoop if he can keep it contained, but the mood in Skyler Square is changing: it doesn’t take long to discover that residents think Lucy Green, aged ten did it. She was the last child seen out playing with Mia, another young woman from the square confides.

A hot knot of excitement throbbed in his throat.
There was nothing better than this, the feeling of stepping onto the precipice of what was definitely worthwhile when you still didn’t know what it was.

Lucy is Carmel’s daughter, the unexpected pregnancy from her affair with Derek, who had abandoned her for a job elsewhere. We flashback to Waterford in 1978:

Some of the first warnings of pregnancy were not unlike the physical markers she had experienced when falling in love. There was the gaping feeling in her chest which swooped in without warning and winded her. There was a vague nausea and dread at all times. There was the comically heightened emotional life, everything living just on the surface so that the sight of a puppy or the news of someone she had never met having a stroke could make her burst into tears.

Carmel did all the things she had heard of to get rid of the baby, but soon it was too late. Her mother Rose’s solution to avoid any scandal was to move to London. They all went, Mum, Dad, even brother Ritchie too, to a flat in Skyler Square, south of the river, where being an Irish immigrant family, they were treated with suspicion. Ritchie struggled to get a job and keep it when he did, he and his father both sinking into alcoholism. Rose did everything – she was mum to Lucy, Carmel never really bonded with her daughter. Then Rose went and died leaving a family in limbo.

This is still the situation when Lucy is taken into custody, and Tom’s newspaper is paying (with police permission) to put Carmel, Ritchie and their father, John, into a hotel until the furore subsides, where of course, they’ll be unavailable to anyone else and Tom can ply them with booze and coax their stories out of them, or so he hopes.

Interspersing the current events with sections from Carmel and Ritchie back in Waterford, Nolan gradually uncovers the Greens’ story. Carmel could have had a different future, they all could have, but luck didn’t go their way and circumstances and repressed secrets conspired against them. You really feel for Carmel and Ritchie, she the beautiful Irish girl observing the world from outside, he knowing what his alcoholism is doing to him. What will happen for this broken family?

Tom, meanwhile, is outwardly a nice young man – but scratch him and his blind ambition surfaces, in which ordinary people are tabloid fodder and to be exploited. He reminded me of local journalist Olly Stephens in Broadchurch: at the end of series 2, Olly has left for the Big Smoke and a tabloid – a Tom in the making. He’s good at getting information out of people about ‘ordinary human failings’, manipulating Lucy’s teacher, Miss Dillon, with relative ease, and then the Green family in their hotel prison – no-one must know they’re there. Carmel, however, is a much tougher nut to crack.

This combination of the two contrasting main points of view between Carmel and Tom certainly worked for me, giving an unsettling read, which also exposes both the community and the isolation that can coexist side by side in a housing estate. Megan Nolan is an author to watch.

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Annabel is a co-founder and editor of Shiny.

Megan Nolan, Ordinary Human Failings (Vintage, 2023). 978-1529922639, 224 pages., paperback.

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