I find that I cannot lose myself in many novels. The world never seems to be entirely credible; the characters are never completely solid; the plot is predictable. I make myself sound like a book version of a snooty wine taster but it’s true. I come to books with expectations, and sadly I can never throw them away entirely. As an Irish novel, I thought You would be all misery-guts and poor-mouthing. It’s not. Suffice to say, I finished this novel in almost one sitting, finding myself immersed in it as one is in luxurious, foamy bathwater.
The novel is told in the (seemingly forbidden) second person, and while I was waiting for there to be a point to this device, it never emerged. I didn’t find myself disappointed, however, as the novel had much more to offer than narrative ploys. You centres on a house by the Liffey river in Dublin, and a mouthy but sensitive ten-year-old girl who has a lot on her plate. Tragedy ensues. It is handled with gentle care and compassion, with humour and grace. This is what makes You such a welcome surprise to read.
The novel has many facets; elements of a children’s tale, of memoir, of a coming-of-age story. It is sharply drawn with the eye of a woman with a keen taste of timing and scene-setting, and with the secret inner ear of a poet, each sentence constructed with care and fitting in with the others in perfect balance.
An established Irish poet—see Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car, Tattoo/Tatu and Molly’s Daughter—this is not Ní Chonchúir’s first foray into fiction. She has story collections, Nude, To the World of Men, Welcome and The Wind Across the Grass. It is, however, her debut novel and a well-realised, believable one.
As an Irish novel, it is never entirely free from the shadow of the Irish literary tradition. In short, the tradition involves rural life, sombre themes and a lot of rain. How does You both conform and refute to this tradition? It ticks some of the right boxes in the pro camp: the themes and events are solemn, with a casual violence and matter-of-fact presentation that is both shocking and true to life, reminding the reader, to some extent, of the plays of Martin McDonagh…and that about sums it up. You breaks through the traditionalist stained-glass ceiling with a refreshingly modern and urban splintering and scattering of shards. It emerges in the 21st century, intact and with a new way of writing, of seeing, which at once heralds the novel as a focal piece of contemporary literature.