Author, Belinda McKeon, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Tender’ by Belinda McKeon


Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 448 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Several years ago I read Belinda McKeon’s debut novel, Solace, which explored the age-old (Irish) story of strained relationships between fathers and sons. In Tender, her second novel, she explores a different kind of relationship, that of friendship between men and women — in this case two young adults, Catherine and James — and the pressure brought to bear on it by competition with peers, academic life, sexual politics and obsession.

Girl meets boy

It is 1997 and Catherine, who comes from a rural farming community, moves to Dublin from Longford to begin her studies in art history and English. James is a photography assistant, who has a room in a flat he shares with two school friends, Amy and Lorraine. When he gets a job with a big-shot photographer in Berlin, he moves out — and Catherine moves in. The pair, however, don’t meet until James returns on a temporary basis a few months down the line.

From the very start their relationship is electric. Catherine doesn’t quite know how to take James, a street-wise drifter and struggling artist who has an air of mystery and the exotic about him. His often upfront, occasionally confrontational and extroverted attitude shocks and delights her in equal measure. Before long she’s rather infatuated with him.

And even though the story is told largely through Catherine’s eyes (albeit in the third person), it’s clear that James is equally enamoured of his new friend, and a kind of co-dependence kicks in.

That day in Dublin […] they had hugged goodbye at the station, and Catherine had wondered if she was meant to understand it, what was going on between them. Because something was going on. She felt so close to him already by that stage, and the phone calls that followed confirmed it; the way James spoke to her during the phone calls confirmed it. The directness. The openness. […] And now, during their phone calls, it was the same, and again, she felt herself wanting to scuttle away from it, somehow; from the way he told her he missed her, that he wanted to have her company again. Always she listened for the irony, for the trace of mockery, but it was never there; he was serious. He was saying aloud the stuff that, Catherine now realised, she had always thought you were meant to keep silent.

The book charts the relationship between James and Catherine over the course of a couple of intense years and then fast forwards to 2012 to explore the status of their friendship almost 15 years after their first meeting. Did it survive the ups and downs,  and incredible strains placed upon it, all those years ago when they were teenagers?

Of course, I’m not going to reveal that here, because you need to read the book to find out for yourself. But let’s just say this is more than a boy-meets-girl story, for Tender is very much about what happens when you try to turn a friend into someone they’re not, when you project on to them feelings that can never truly be reciprocated.

It’s mainly about a young woman not being quite honest with herself, for Catherine loves the fact that she has a “special” friend because of the attention it garners her, but her naivety is alarming, as is her needy attitude, which quickly morphs into a self-destructive obsession.

Brilliant and believable characters

The superb characterisation is what makes this novel truly come alive — we’ve all known larger-than-life characters like James, perhaps we’ve also known characters like Catherine, who is quiet and mousey but comes into her own in the company of someone else. The further you read the story, the more absorbed you become by their claustrophobic relationship — I often felt like a voyeur looking in, almost embarrassed to share such close company with them, for their friendship is so interdependent and inward-looking, yet it morphs and changes over time. It took me quite awhile to realise that Catherine is not a particularly nice person, however — her neediness, her selfishness, her desire to keep James to herself is cruel and heartbreaking to read about. She never truly allows James to be himself.

Catherine also lacks maturity, doesn’t know how to handle things, is out of her depth emotionally, and refuses to accept or acknowledge when she can’t have things her own way. It’s not that she’s a bad person, she has good intentions, but she lacks self-awareness and doesn’t realise the long-term repercussions of her behaviour.

The way in which McKeon gently exposes the cracks in their friendship is expertly paced. Indeed, this is the kind of book you sit down and get drawn in by — it’s hefty, weighing in at more than 400 pages, but I raced through it, completely absorbed by the story that unfolds in such beautiful, almost breathless, prose. It’s full of quietly powerful, often joyful, sometimes excruciatingly painful, moments, perfectly capturing what it is like to be young and free for the first time in your life. Two months after having reached the final page I’m still thinking about these wonderfully drawn characters, released into a world where you must learn to stand on your own two feet regardless of the company you keep…

Author, Belinda McKeon, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Solace’ by Belinda McKeon


Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 352 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace is one of those books that has definitely improved with age. I read it several weeks ago and planned on giving it a three-star review. But I’ve thought about the book — unintentionally — a bit since then, almost as if certain characters and scenes have wormed into my brain, ready to reappear when I least expect them. When a story sticks like that, it has to be a good sign.

For background information, I first saw a review of Solace on the blog Just William’s Luck, which encouraged me to bump it a bit higher up my TBR. Not that there was ever any doubt that I would read this one: Belinda McKeon is Irish and the press release that accompanied my edition was littered with quotes from the great and the good of the Irish literary establishment — Colum McCann, Anne Enright and Colm Toibin. With names like that on your side, how could McKeon go wrong?

Without wishing to damn Solace with faint praise, it does tell the age old Irish story of strained relationships between fathers and sons. John McGahern is the master of this theme — the classic examples being The Dark and Amongst Women — but McKeon adds a modern twist. The setting is contemporary Ireland — the 2008 financial crash has happened — and the son, Mark Casey, lives in Dublin, while the father, Tom, is running the farm single-handedly in County Longford.

The problem is that Tom can’t run the farm alone, but because he is of that generation of men, unable to communicate with their children, he never fully articulates what it is he wants from Mark. And Mark, who is a doctoral student at Trinity College, is too passive to ever truly stand up to his father’s unspoken demands. But these parental obligations — and expectations — weigh on him heavily.

Mark might be approaching 30, but he has never truly managed to live his own life. Weekends are reluctantly — and resentfully — given up to help Tom bale hay or plough fields, and when the father and son are together there is tension between them. Words, when they are spoken, are harsh and bitter-edged. It is only the delicate manoeuvring of Mark’s mother that keeps the fragile peace in place.

Then, inevitably, Mark falls in love with a trainee solicitor, the beguiling Joanne, he meets at a party in Dublin. By a stroke of co-incidence (and there are several of these in the book), Jo happens to be from his home town, and she, too, has problems with her parents: she is estranged from her mother, and her father, whom she did not trust, is dead. This may partly explain why Mark and Joanne hit it off so quickly.

But McKeon uses the pairing to set up an unconvincing (and in my opinion, unnecessary) plot device, in which Joanne’s dad and Mark’s dad have past history. It seems the two of them spectacularly fell out over a property deal decades ago, and this creates additional tension for Mark — how does he tell his father that his new priority is a woman, rather than the farm, and worse, how does he tell him that the woman is the daughter of a man who wronged him?

That bit of melodrama aside, the novel is written in an understated, restrained style.

In the book’s prologue we know there has been some kind of family tragedy — Tom and Mark are together on the farm, looking after young girl, whom we can only assume is Mark’s daughter — but McKeon refrains from offering any explanation. Indeed, when the tragedy occurs, more than half-way through the book, it’s written in such vague terms it seems anti-climatic. I had to re-read it several times to make sure I’d understood what had happened.

By contrast, some of the scenes in the book seem over-worked and false — Joanne’s troubles at work, for instance, seem laboured; Mark’s shopping trip with his mother doesn’t completely ring true — but there’s a quiet and devastating beauty to this story, about real people trying to make the best of their lives under trying circumstances. As a portrait of a father and son battling to comprehend, trust and respect one another, it’s very authentic — to the point I wanted to yell at Mark to stand up for himself and to pull Tom aside to have a few quiet words.

Solace may not be a polished novel, but it’s an astoundingly good one for a first-time author, and it certainly marks McKeon as a new Irish literary talent to watch.