#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.

#5 (2020) Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride

I had been eagerly anticipating Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel ever since it was announced last year as I absolutely loved her previous two novels: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians.

At the mid-point of her life a woman enters an Avignon hotel room. She’s been here once before – but while the room hasn’t changed, she is a different person now. 

Forever caught between check-in and check-out, she will go on to occupy other hotel rooms, from Prague to Oslo, Auckland to Austin, each as anonymous as the last, but bound by rules of her choosing. There, amid the detritus of her travels, the matchbooks, cigarettes, keys and room-service wine, she will negotiate with memory, with the men she sometimes meets, and with what it might mean to return home.

If you haven’t yet read any of McBride’s books, the first thing I’d say is that she is an absolute wordsmith. Her handling of language — both English and Hiberno-English — is fresh and creative. Both of her previous novels deal with very sensitive issues, which she handles with the utmost care. As someone with a closeted desire to be a writer, I am hugely inspired by McBride’s talent and the unique voice she has crafted.

Strange Hotel follows the female protagonist through a series of hotel rooms in different cities, and provides some indication of what happens there. The book reads quite differently to her previous books. The language is arguably more straightforward; McBride describes it as more ‘formal’ in this clip from Faber & Faber. While A Girl and The Lesser Bohemians are both, in their own way, quite introspective novels, Strange Hotel takes this to the next level. The whole work appears to be an internal monologue, rarely broken by external forces. As a result, I found the narrative a little muddy, and wanted more detail about why she was in these different hotel rooms. When I expressed this to a fellow PhDer (and probably the most avid reader I’ve ever met), he expressed surprise that I found Strange Hotel a more challenging read than A Girl. I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

Naturally, there were passages where McBride’s prose shone through with particular clarity, and I relished these parts for their sense of familiarity and comfort. This is the Eimear I know and love, I felt. Here, for example…

It is the farthest furthest she has ever been. On a flat earth she would be at the edge. As it is, to go on might be the shortest way home and just let the world fold back on itself. For despite some perplexity regarding her current notions of home — and her periodic declarations that it is simply not so — her belief in the planet’s curve is secure. It is an unbreachable line, and one of the few of which she has ever been sure. (Pg. 78)

What challenged me most, however, was how I felt about the character. Where before I had been moved to the core, here I felt nothing. For all of the introspection and internal dialogue, I felt no connection to the character. Although McBride in her characteristic manner, teases out details a taste at a time, before drawing back the curtain to reveal all, I was little moved. And for me, as an emotionally-driven soul, this was a big let down.

A few days after I finished reading the book I went to an event at the National Concert Hall in Dublin and heard McBride read a passage from the novel. It was a different experience to reading it myself, and it made me hopeful. I’ll give it some time before reading it through again; perhaps my expectations of what the book might have been interfered with what the book was.

If you’ve read the book I’d love to hear your thoughts, particularly in relation to her previous two. And if you haven’t read it, please don’t let me put you off! There was a lot of personal feeling invested in this book and, as I say, that may have affected my reading of it.