Fiction – paperback; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 311 pages; 2020.
When Alannah is 12-years-old, her father walks out on the family. A school psychologist tells her that she will always have trouble with men.
And that is essentially what Niamh Campbell’s novel This Happy is about — a young woman, now 30 years old, recounting the two most important male relationships in her life and trying to make sense of them both.
Two men six years apart
The first relationship occurred when she was 23. She fell in love with Harry, an Englishman 20 years her senior. He was married. She was studying art history in London. She gave up her student lodgings, packed her bags and visited him in Ireland where he rented a cottage in Drogheda, on the east coast where she was raised, to work on his writing, free from his wife.
The affair, which is complex and one-sided, ends abruptly after a mere three weeks but has a long-lasting emotional impact on Alannah.
Seven years later, she is now married — to someone else. Her husband, 10 years her senior, is a history teacher with ambitions to be a politician, but Alannah isn’t so sure he’s cut out for the job. She does not believe in him and feels unable to offer her unconditional support.
When one day she spies the landlady, who owned the Drogheda cottage, walking down a Dublin street, her mind turns toward Harry, her long-lost love.
She then recounts that relationship, the bliss and agony of it, and compares Harry to her now-husband, their ambitions, background and desires, and plagues herself with thoughts of what might have been with what she has now.
Style over substance
There’s no plot. The book is simply structured around Alannah’s interior thoughts and her memories. Stylistically the prose is what I would call verbose. The language is lush, ripe with metaphors and astute observations, but it feels over-written and, dare I say it, over-wrought.
This is not to say it’s a bad book. It isn’t. But you need to be in the right frame of mind to read it. You need to want to revel in the language, to soak up the words and the clever ways in which they are arranged on the page.
Much of it is about memory. About the way memory works. But it’s also about love and relationships, desire and ambition, class and privilege, how our childhoods inform our adult lives, how our expectations and beliefs can be thwarted by reality, and how if we always look back we can never look forward.
If you could dive into an old life — something you never protected when it was happening, something you believe to be a prelude at the time — if you could dive like one dives into love, or fall slowly over a precipice into it, enthralled, would you do this? Sometimes it seems like this is all I do. Like my past is a residue riming the world of the present, lying over everything. I’ve been living at speed because I know I can revisit the edited version.
But as much as I loved the honesty of the writing and the often gorgeous descriptions, I came away from the novel wondering if there was any point to the story. A newly married woman wonders if she might have had a different life with a different man isn’t that original after all.
This Happy was shortlisted for Newcomer of the Year at the 2020 An Post Irish Book Awards and has just been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, which will be announced in June.
This is my 2nd book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 12th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book shop when it was published last August.