Fiction – paperback; Oneworld; 288 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Anyone who has ever grown up in the countryside or a small community knows that you have to make your own fun, which makes the title of Frances Macken’s debut novel spot on.
Set in the (presumably fictional) small Irish village of Glenbruff in County Roscommon, You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here focuses on a female trio who have to do exactly that during their childhood. But like many childhood friendships, there are tensions and rivalries between them, which are amplified when they become adults.
The story, which is set in the 1990s, is told from Katie’s first-person point of view and follows her from childhood to her mid-twenties. She’s the one caught in the middle, because she adores Evelyn, the bold, pretty one, but endures Maeve, who “has large slate-grey eyes that droop at the outer corners, like a sad dog” and just so happens to be Evelyn’s cousin. She would rather keep Evelyn all to herself but…
…unfortunately for me […] when you’re cousins it’s a given that you’re friends; it’s a bad sign if you can’t be friends with your own cousin, and even if the cousin is in the wrong, you stand by them. That’s the rule of being cousins.
But Katie’s friendship with Evelyn is interrupted by the arrival of a glamourous girl from Dublin called Pamela, who threatens Evelyn’s role as the dominant personality. It is only when Pamela disappears — a frightening crime that is never fully resolved in the novel — that an uneasy equilibrium is restored.
Friends who grow apart
Most of the novel charts the ups and downs of Katie’s relationship with Evelyn. Both characters are flawed — Katie is insecure, judgemental and occasionally petty — but over time Eveyln’s true colours are revealed: she’s mean, often cruel, and prone to narcissism and jealousy.
When Evelyn misses out on an art college place their friendship is put to the test, for Katie secures a university place in Dublin and moves to the city, something the pair had promised each other to do together. From then on, things are never quite the same between them. Katie finds city life lonely but she builds resilience and learns to open her mind to new experiences, not all of them good; Evelyn doesn’t lose her sense of ambition but because she remains in Glenbruff doesn’t grow much as a person.
Written with a keen insight into female friendships and dripping with wit and charm, You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here is a truly immersive story. Macken has a visual eye, bringing simple scenes to life with a carefully chosen word or perceptive detail, and her ear for dialogue is pitch-perfect. The ways in which she captures the pull of the places we call home and the people from our childhoods who shape our lives is also impressive.
You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here is a book about toxic female friendships, ambition, growing up and facing the consequences of the decisions we make. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t wish to damn it with faint praise but it reminded me of the very best of Maeve Binchy’s work, albeit set it in a more modern era.
This is my 2nd novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. It was sent to me unsolicited from the publisher for review in the last week of May, so just snuck onto my TBR pile in time.