Acts of Desperation, by Megan Nolan, Vintage, 288 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1787333369
“Female suffering is cheap and is used cheaply by dishonest women who are looking only for attention ‑ and of all our cardinal sins, seeking attention must surely be up there.” This line, directed at the reader, comes early on in Megan Nolan’s debut novel. As a gambit, it sets up certain expectations. This won’t be a book about cheap female suffering. Or, on the other hand, the narrator is going to, at least according to her own principles, commit this cardinal sin. Perhaps there is a third option, in which the narrator is humouring us, pandering to what we have to come to expect from narratives which deal, however frankly, with female suffering. Nolan writes:
Mediating your own victimhood is just part of being a woman. Using it or denying it, hating it or loving it, and all of these at once. Being a victim is boring for everyone involved … This is part of the horror of being hurt generically. Your experiences are so common that they become impossible to talk about in an interesting way. If I want to say something about my hurt, I hear my voice enter the canon of Women Who’ve Been Hurt, becoming unknown, not mine.
This is the novel’s first-person unnamed narrator finding a way to tell her story, to reconcile an innate desire to simplify through language with the complex realities of rape and trauma with which she is dealing. The passage is from one of the book’s several sections which are written in Greece, five years after the events of the narrative proper, which take place in Dublin, between 2012 and 2014. The novel charts the events of the narrator’s intense and fraught relationship with Ciaran, a freelance writer and aspirant essayist, who has recently moved from Copenhagen to Dublin. (His more-or-less estranged Irish father accounts for his name.) The pair meet at an exhibition. The narrator, immediately attracted to him, is taken in by the fact that whilst “he didn’t seem particularly happy, he seemed undeniably whole, as though his world was contained within himself”.
In stark contrast, she describes herself as “… buoyant and good-natured and occasionally a little bit mean in an amusing way. I looked and fucked like a woman but could drink and take drugs and talk like a lad.” She dropped out of college but has artistic ambitions, so she works a series of admin jobs in the hopes of avoiding a conventional nine-to-five. By her own accounts, she goes out a lot, sleeps with whomever she pleases, and maybe drinks a little more than is good for her. Alone at home, though, she is almost physically unable to endure the constant loneliness of being single. “Love itself,” she writes, “sustains and validates the rotten moments you would otherwise be wasting while you practise being a person, pacing back and forth in your shitty apartment, holding off till seven to open the wine.”
Grateful at last to be rid of the one-night stands and (mostly) meaningless, short-lived relationships, the narrator throws all of herself at Ciaran. “Love was the great consolation” she believes, that “would set ablaze the fields of my life in one go, leaving nothing behind. I thought of it as the great leveller, as a force which would clean me and by its presence make me worthy of it.” Things begin well but go south quickly as the narrator has to learn to navigate Ciaran’s moods and struggle not to internalise his passive aggressive hangups. Things worsen again as the narrator learns that Ciaran has been writing poetry about ‑ and sending it to ‑ his ex-girlfriend, Freja, who lives back in Copenhagen. It continues back and forth in this way until after a brief breakup, they reunite and move in together.
Cohabiting brings its own joys for the narrator, who enjoys afternoons spent reading silently next to Ciaran, preparing elaborate meals for them, and waking in the middle of the night to find her limbs enveloped in his. What she doesn’t enjoy is learning how to put up with his increasing volatility as well as unwittingly becoming the girlfriend who feels compelled to use sex to placate her boyfriend’s moods. As Ciaran becomes more controlling, and the narrator finds further correspondence between him and Freja, she becomes disengaged and begins seeking out the kinds of sexual encounters ‑ often self-destructive, occasionally violent ‑ that she sometimes found herself in before she met Ciaran.
The relationship’s unravelling ‑ driven by an intense urge to be needed by a man who, it seems, doesn’t need anything ‑ precipitates the narrator’s descent into abjection. Their relationship comes to a devastating end, the significance and brutality of which this short review will not begin to explain or unpack. Shortly afterwards, the narrator packs up belongings and leaves for Athens, where we see her once more, six months later, suffer one final degradation. Some will surely find the novel’s ending too bleak or fatalistic, but the relentless logic that pushes Nolan’s narrator further into her desperation is truthful and brings us full circle to the thorny issue of female suffering.
While this is undoubtedly a book about a uniquely female kind of suffering, Nolan has sublimated it so that it is neither cheap nor generic. Acts of Desperation is a frequently stunning debut novel, written with all of the style, frankness and searing clarity that has come to define Nolan’s writing over much of the past decade. Its unwillingness to bend towards sentimentality means that it’s a refreshingly honest and often uncomfortable meditation on the relationship between desire, self-destruction and the female body. With Acts of Desperation, Megan Nolan has secured her reputation as one of the most daring and gifted writers of her generation.
Tadhg Hoey’s writing has appeared in BOMB, the Dublin Review of Books, Headstuff, and The Irish Times. He lives in Dublin.