The Mess We’re In by Annie Macmanus

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Review by Annabel

Having very much enjoyed Annie Macmanus’ debut novel Mother Mother last year, I was really keen to read her next. The Mess We’re In is as similar as it is different but is also a simpler story of a young woman finding her place in life in millennium London.

Orla has left Dublin for London, where she moves into a run-down house-share in Kilburn with her friend Neema and a rock band called Shiva, which includes Neema’s brother. Orla has dreams of making it in the music industry – she writes songs, sings and plays guitar, and had studied music production – but she doesn’t know anyone or have any contacts. Hanging with the band will give her some experience of the business by osmosis during their heady early days when a breakthrough is always just around the corner.

Meanwhile, Orla needs a job. She picks up barmaid shifts in an Irish pub down the road. It’s a traditional bar, frequented by melancholic unfulfilled regulars who left Ireland a generation ago. Orla learns their ways under the guidance of landlady Pat, who looks after them all; her concern is touching.

— They came here as boys, Gerry and Dave, and the others like them, leaving all their families behind. It was a hard life. A lonely life.

— So you feel sorry for them?

She shrugs. — I understand why they are the way they are, I suppose.

— Do you ever meet their families?

— Not unless they die.

I baulk at that. — Do they die often?

— Oh, God, yes, she says, as she picks my coat off the hanger. -We’ve had a lot of wakes in this pub. That’s normally when you meet the wives.

The rest of the time Orla parties hard, booze and drugs are all-pervasive, and the good high times and post-gig elation are balanced by coming down and recovery. It’s no surprise that as Shiva’s members discover that overnight success is looking as if it will elude them, tensions in the house will escalate. Orla’s relationship with her best friend Neema is suffering too. Neema, a junior lawyer, is driven and tidy whereas Orla is not, wallowing in her self-centred mess.

Orla’s dad had left her mother for another woman too back home, and although Orla was close to her dad, and got her passion for music from him, she can’t forgive him. Their split adds another layer to Orla’s ongoing struggles, but time will bring a level of forgiveness and compromise that will let them get on with their lives.

As the novel is in part a portrait of the music industry – as much as I loved it – this ain’t Daisy Jones & The Six! Macmanus’ doesn’t glamorise things at all – its cutthroat dog-eat-dog at the indie labels who need a success to keep going. There are shallow executives who don’t call back, but by getting some work experience at Shiva’s label alongside her bar work, Orla will finally begin to make the contacts she needs to get her own chance…

I loved that Macmanus chose the early noughties to set the novel in; an era in which the smartphone had yet to get going and the internet is not yet the force that dominates our lives now. It means that people must still put in the legwork and talk face-to-face. The dialogue (signified with dashes, as Roddy Doyle does – is this an Irish thing?) is snappy and conversational, real. She writes in the first person present tense with Orla as our narrator as we stumble through her life with her, hoping she’ll find balance and a break. The claustrophobia and grittiness of the shared house dynamics is very well done too, contrasting with the generally calm atmosphere at the pub. Macmanus handles all her characters deftly with grit and pathos.

I must admit, being of an age, with gallons of beer, cider and fags having been my drugs of choice back in the day, it does slightly sadden me that the current big city coming-of-age experience is so drug-fuelled in so many contemporary novels. I find the constant pill-popping and snorting lines, each time documented by our narrator, rather tedious and repetitive, even if it is realistic for many – and I wonder how they can afford it! That said, the novel did give me a certain nostalgia for those times.

While perhaps lacking the narrative drive of Mother Mother, The Mess We’re In is a pageturner that would make a great character-driven summer read, straddling the line between commercial and literary fiction. I hope Macmanus continues to give us more.

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Annabel is one of Shiny’s founders and editors, and keeps to the occasional gin or red wine these days.

Annie Macmanus, The Mess We’re In (Wildfire, 2023). 978-1472297129, 376pp., hardback.

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