‘You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here’ by Frances Macken

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. 

8 thoughts on “‘You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here’ by Frances Macken

    • I must hunt out your review, Susan. I had forgotten you had read this one. Growing up in a small town has its virtues but comes with its own set of problems as you get older. It actually reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love, which is largely about a young woman trying to escape her small town roots and the childhood “friend” she feels shackled to.

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      • Not a Mantel I’ve read. I’ll check it out. Thanks, Kim.

        Oddly, the pandemic has reminded me of growing up in a village so small we said hello to everyone. That’s been happening around Bath, probably because we all felt a little embarrassed at swerving away from each other. I hope we’ll still be doing it when things get back to ‘normal’.

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        • That’s what I loved about moving to Fremantle. Even though it’s essentially a beachside suburb of Perth, everyone is so friendly here that people smile and greet one another on the street and all the shop keepers / cafe owners want to have a chat. I had to learn to lose my “London face” and not be scared to smile and interact with complete strangers.

          The Mantel is worth reading. It’s an early novel and one that has stayed with me. I think it’s largely semi-autobiographical.

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    • It’s actually a fun read. I really enjoyed spending time in Katie’s company even though she’s flawed. There’s a lot to discuss in this novel; it would make a good book group read.

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  1. Faint praise indeed! I’ve tried Binchy. I grew up in small towns. I wonder how many success stories there are of people who stayed behind in those small towns. Some I suppose, of farmers and small businessmen who enjoy country life, but they don’t ever seem to get written.

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    • I adore Binchy’s early work. I blame her for my love of Irish lit because it was through wanting more of her stories that led me to try other Irish writers. But she’s often dismissed as a romance writer or a trashy writer but she’s really a chronicler if small town Irish life at a time when the Church had a restrictive control over everything. William Trevor does a nice line in small town Irish stories, too, but you are right: not many stories are about those who stay behind and make something of themselves.

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