We have entered the fourth week of our program and last week we went on a five-day excursion along the southern coast of Ireland, staying two nights in County Cork, one night in County Kerry, and one night in County Galway (my personal favorite). Our first stop and the subject of this post was the city of Bantry in West Cork, home of the Bantry Literary Festival. We attended two readings of what I presume will both be extremely successful novels.
“Only Ever Yours” is Louise O’Neill’s debut novel and just the beginning of is bound to be a very fruitful writing career. I finished the 400-page novel in just under two hours I was so riveted by the plot. The novel is a dystopian take on beauty and body image issues faced by teenage girls. Females are created by computers and then bred in an institute to fit one of three social strata: companions, concubines, and chastities. Companions artfully groomed to be beautiful and agreeable wives to their husbands, with their main purpose to provide as many sons as possible until their termination date. Cocktails of weight loss and beautification pills are administered daily so the girls can improve their rankings, because usually only the top 10 are considered by the males to be companion-worthy. I won’t ruin the plot, but this dark, haunting novel will send you on an emotional roller coaster as you follow the inevitable demise of the main character, Freida, who falls victim to her environment time after time. The story was inspired by O’Neill’s own struggles with anorexia and society’s perception of beauty. Disappointedly so, the Q&A portion of the reading focused more on her eating disorder than her novel. I was shocked, having continuously struggled with eating disorders myself, at her level of grace under fire. She handled questions that I internally deemed ridiculous with compassion and understanding, clearly used to getting asked these sorts of things all the time. The lack of exposure of mental illness in Ireland shouldn’t surprise me given the country’s notoriously conservative background, ie divorce was only made legal in the late 1990s, yet it did. What broke my heart the most was a grandma, asking all sorts of things about how to spot anorexia, because she suspected her granddaughter had fallen prey to the disease. It was so beyond her level of comprehension I just wanted to give her a hug. As I read the novel, O’Neill’s history of disorder was clearly evident, giving the story a dimension I don’t think would’ve been possible otherwise.
The second reading paled in to the first comparison. Where Louise was young and vibrant, Audrey McGee was timid and visibly uncomfortable by the attention. She penned a historical fiction dialogue about German soldiers on the Russian front during World War II, entitled “The Undertaking”. She read at a volume barely above whisper, letting the novel speak for itself. I’ve always had a soft spot historical fiction (and Henry the 8th, I find him utterly fascinating) and rarely have I come across an author that pens from the perspective of the Germans in regards to World War 2, so I’m definitely intrigued. It took her ten years to compile this novel, which is an extremely admirable commitment and the excerpt that she read exemplified her exquisite attention to detail. Although I personally didn’t purchase the book, I do plan on eventually obtaining a copy.
Later that night there was an “open mike night” (and yes that’s how it was spelled) geared as an opportunity for poets who had been enrolled in a weeklong workshop to share what they had constructed. Little did we know that the participants were all women over seventy and that they would be reading poems written about the promiscuous years of their youth. Literally, a woman had an ode to her “Fuck Me Shoes”, inspired by the death of her father, whom she was very close to. I wish I was kidding. This reading was the most culture shock I’ve experienced thus far but it was extremely entertaining all at the same time.