#14 (2020) Orchid and The Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes

My pre-lock down mosey around Chapters led to my buying Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy (thoughts here), and Caoilinn Hughes’s Orchid and the Wasp. I’d seen Hughes’s book while it was still in hardback and enjoyed the first few pages when I’d leafed through it in the shop. The end result, however, was not so satisfactory.

In this dazzlingly original debut novel, award-winning Irish writer Caoilinn Hughes introduces a heroine of mythic proportions in the form of one Gael Foess. A tough, thoughtful, and savvy opportunist, Gael is determined to live life on her own terms. Raised in Dublin by single-minded, careerist parents, Gael learns early how a person’s ambitions and ideals can be compromised— and she refuses to let her vulnerable, unwell younger brother, Guthrie, suffer such sacrifices.

When Gael’s financier father walks out on them during the economic crash of 2008, her family fractures. Her mother, a once-formidable orchestral conductor, becomes a shadow. And a fateful incident prevents Guthrie from finishing high school. Determined not to let her loved-ones fall victim to circumstance, Gael leaves Dublin for the coke-dusted social clubs of London and Manhattan’s gallery scene, always working an angle, but beginning to become a stranger to those who love her. 

The first few chapters set the scene and give a little family history, which helps to contextualise the characters in the book, and you very quickly get a sense of Gael’s personality. Child-Gael seems independent, bossy, and wilful, and not much changes! ‘Raised’ by two fairly unsentimental parents, her actions seem to be reflective of both the environment in which she was brought up, and her father’s financial preoccupations.

Hughes’s writing style is engaging and witty, and I particularly enjoyed the parts where Gael’s mother, Sive, is in the mix. Hughes’s musical descriptions are rich and suggest a sound knowledge of the works referenced and Sive’s career as a conductor. The musicologist in me revelled a little in the descriptive passages, which are beautiful and emotive in a way that we aren’t encouraged to be. One exchange between Gael and Sive stuck out in particular:

Leaning in, her hands on either side of the turntable, Sive heard out the conversation between a flute and E-flat clarinet until cellos introduced their gentle, chordal strokes and a pair of harps stippled like rain. Then, she lifted the needle back an inch to the beginning of the discourse. ‘What do you hear?’ Sive didn’t raise her head to ask this. ‘Love… or lament?’ (Pg. 31) (The piece in question is Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony)

The question Sive poses reminded me of a lecture I had in third year, in which we were played a piece of music and then asked to say which emotion we felt it reflected. I said love, which triggered a whole other conversation about whether love was an emotion or a state of being. Anyway, I digress. Hughes’s description here is lovely and evocative; I can see Sive’s actions, the concentration in her face. Hughes goes on to detail Sive’s appearance through the eyes of Gael, who disapproves of her knee-length waistcoat (that Gael wouldn’t wear for a bet, but looked borderline cool, she had to admit).

The narrative takes Gael to university in London and then across to New York, where her entrepreneurial exploits take shape. My main difficulty with this aspect of the book was a) plausibility of the story and b) how much I disliked Gael. I just didn’t find her a likeable character. She reminded me of those girls at school who just thought they were the embodiment of what was right – everyone else could go jump.

That said, Hughes writing was excellent and the poet in her came through. I’d say it’s worth a look, particularly if you’re unperturbed by a less-than-likeable protagonist! Thoughts welcome, as always.

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