Tender by Belinda McKeon

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Reviewed by Alice Farrant

Tender by Belinda McKeon is a literary tour-de-force. A frighteningly addictive tumble down the rabbit hole of obsessive love and friendship in late-90s Ireland.

Catherine is 18, fresh from countryside life in her first year at Trinity College, Dublin. After a disastrous first year of social embarrassment at Trinity, Catherine meets James. He is a school friend of her flatmates and they bond almost instantly. James is everything Catherine would like to be, confident and social, cool. Over the summer, before James heads back to Germany and she begins her second year, he comes out to her and their intense friendship begins.

And, also, she was reeling a little, in shock a little, that already she had pushed an untruth into the story; James had not, after all, been going in the direction of the train station anyway. He had gone there especially for her. To sit with her. To hug her goodbye. To wave her off from the platform, with his arms going madly, not giving a shit who was seeing him or laughing at him, doing it with such glee and enthusiasm that Catherine had cringed. But she could not tell her mother any of it. Her mother would not understand. Her mother, like her father, had surely never known this kind of friendship, the kind of friendship in which you did not want to waste a single minute, in which every minute was a chance to talk about something more-

Tender is well written and brutally honest in its introspection. The prose flows as if each word were carefully selected for its purpose. Catherine is fraught and unformed – emotionally underdeveloped. A 90s version of ‘consciously naive’ Cassandra of I Capture the Castle. She is every teenager not knowing who they are or how their self-centered actions can damage.

James, forever seen through the eyes of Catherine, is a bright and vivacious photographer, confused by the isolation he feels his sexuality brings. Even in Catherine’s presence he feels alone. He is scared to be gay in a country that won’t accept him, not knowing how to take the leap in a private sexuality due to prejudice.

Panic hammering in Catherine’s chest all day now; by now, it was when her heart stopped racing that she noticed it at all.

Tender is told in in two ways, outside and inside Catherine’s head. The change, though sudden, does not alter the flow of the novel. Were we not in her mind it would be easy to dislike Catherine. Though her actions are shady, behind them lie emotional immaturity, naivety and a desire to be loved as she has never been loved before. James encompasses all Catherine has ever needed, opening up to her in a way no one has before.

McKeon has written Catherine so well, her self-centeredness expressive of youthful inexperience. Even as she makes friends beyond James, who she boasts about knowing as if he is a trophy she has won, she is separate from those around her, seemingly people who know who they are and how they fit into the world. Were we to see these characters through their own eyes, their feelings of stability and certainty within their worlds would be obviously different.

What did that say about her, about what kind of friend she was? Nothing good, anyway. Nothing that could ever be allowed.

It was hard to read Catherine and not recognise my own teenage self, how I thought about me (all the time), how people were there to be absorbed and picked up and put down without much thought to what is happening in their lives. Nothing intentionally cruel, but nonetheless dismissive. Childlike in a way that’s demonstrative of the argument that people mature at different rates. Catherine wants James to herself, and without knowing wants to be in the limelight with him as her defense in the shadows. She doesn’t know how to be friends with him with other people and is jealous of their attentions.

She wanted the brilliant, funny, vibrant James, lit up with enjoyment, teeming with it, and she wanted him to be her only friend. She did not want him to love others this much, to take such unbridled pleasure in their presence.

Every other friend is a threat to their happiness and she doesn’t know how to climb from her descent into unhappiness.

And this was part of what had changed, too: Catherine being determined that James would act, and act towards her, in certain crucial ways.

Yet, Catherine is friends with James as it suits her. For James, it is as though he has troubles that she doesn’t want to deal with, and deep down she recognises he feels this way. Catherine, while she recognises his problems, avoids them, not understanding or knowing how to fix them. She is afraid of his vulnerability and what that means for their friendship. She bonded with a fun, extroverted person who supported her, and a twist in that dynamic pushes her off course. Realising that in a friendship there is more than having fun seems to be difficult for her; she understands there are issues beyond herself, but doesn’t understand the situations themselves.

To use a well worn phrase, she is unaware of her privilege. Unaware that what she doesn’t know about her country or the differences in society are things she needs to know. As long as she is ignorant she believes herself to be happy.

body woke first, but body was innocent, body contained within itself space for some kind of oblivion. Mind; when mind kicked in, mind put a stop to that gallop. Mind; mind got to. Cranked it up. Piled it on; piled it down. Not just thoughts; they did not feel like just thoughts.

McKeon’s mastery at storytelling lies in her ability not only to depict the obsession of love, but merge this with wider social and cultural issues at the time. Layering the story in a way that stops Catherine and James’ story being self-indulgent. It’s more than Catherine needing James, it’s all the bits about him and her country that she doesn’t want to understand and hasn’t needed to until she met him. Whether that be views on homosexuality or the IRA.

McKeon widens her story by making it as much about Ireland in the late 90s as it is about one girl growing up.

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, Catherine,’ James said through gritted teeth, and she felt again the shock of it – that he seemed really, truly angry. Angry with her. Angry at her. But what had she done? All she was doing was trying to talk to him. Reason with him. He couldn’t just stare at people in this way. He couldn’t just talk at such an obvious volume about them, doing nothing to hide his interest. He just had to be more artful about these things. Had to be more discreet.

Catherine’s identity as Irish, even with a desire to break from her parents more conservative restrictions, is still based around their views. She doesn’t understand or accept difference as openly as she believes she does. She believes she is helping James, but in reality she doesn’t want him to be gay, she wants him to love her. She rushes to support him, but simultaneously holds him back from expressing himself. He can be gay as long as it’s for her, her boon, her gay best friend. When James is happy in a relationship with a man, she cannot comprehend, it draws his attentions away from her and gives him an autonomy she hasn’t given thought to.

Tender was an exhilarating book to read, one that lit up my synapses. It is brilliant, poignant and brutal in its honesty. I couldn’t put it down.

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You can read more by Alice at her blog, of Books, or find her on Instagram @nomoreparades

Belinda McKeon, Tender (Picador: London, 2015). 978-1447252177, 432pp., hardback.

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