As You Were, by Elaine Feeney, Harvill Secker, 392 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-1787301641
Galway writer Elaine Feeney’s debut novel is set in the recent past, in the political crucible of post-Celtic Tiger, pre-marriage equality, pre-Repeal Ireland. In the background, debates rage about celebrating the Republic’s upcoming centenary in a time of crisis. The state faces crippling austerity, the scandal of its estimated 796 missing children thought to be buried in Tuam, and increasingly loud calls for constitutional referenda on marriage equality, reproductive rights, and a woman’s “place” in society. As You Were is an outraged state-of-the-nation novel that obliquely condemns the broken promises of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence and the state’s failure to fulfil its “guarantee” of “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”.
The revolutionary fervour that birthed the Republic was smothered by the constitutionalised conservatism that followed in its wake. “Modern” Ireland rests on a foundation of institutionalised oppression, and Feeney is particularly interested in the ordinary citizens who are trapped within this system. She asserts: “there was a hefty life sentence, incarceration of the body of the woman, of her mind, and of the baby, the Holy Trinity”.
Her writing focuses on the central themes of history, national identity, and state institutions, and she examines how these forces structure the everyday lives of Irish women. Feeney has published three collections of poetry, and she was appointed a Poetry Ambassador for Poetry Ireland in 2018. She is frequently categorised as a “political poet”; however, her work encompasses other forms of expression. Her stage piece WRoNGHEADED combines spoken-word poetry, film and dance to explore the issue of women’s bodily autonomy, and it has toured internationally since its opening run at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016. Feeney teaches creative writing at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where she also serves as creative director of the Tuam Oral History Project. She works with survivors of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home to build an archive of their narratives. As You Were is her first published book of fiction, and this January The Observer named it one of the best debut novels of 2020.
The narrator of As You Were is Sinéad Hynes, a young woman who is being treated in hospital for cancer. In fragments of intrusive memory and sudden revelation, she and two older women patients tell their life stories. These narratives explore the political meaning of the female body ‑ a topic which is personal to Feeney, who has spoken about her near-death experience due to complications following the birth of her second son. Her protagonist is also a mother, and Sinéad struggles to articulate her experiences of illness, abuse, maternity and pain. She refrains from telling her loved ones about her diagnosis, but in a shared hospital room there are no secrets. Sinéad reflects: “Dwelling in my body had become complicated, and negotiating language for its actions and more specifically the actions of my wayward cells was far from simple, even if now I know that everything has a point of simplification.” The language used in Ireland to address health, wellbeing and suffering remains evasive and couched in platitudes. Accordingly, Sinéad recalls:
I didn’t tell a soul I was sick. OK, I told a fat magpie. She was the first beating heart I met after the oncology unit and she sat shiny and serious on the bonnet of the Volvo. One for sorrow. And I saluted her with that greeting you give when you find yourself alone and awkward with one magpie and she flew away, piercing her black arc through the sky blue.
In Irish folklore a single magpie is a pisreóg, an omen which can bring misfortune. Sinéad recollects “all the pisreógs we hid from ‑ putting new shoes on the table, walking under a ladder, cracking a mirror. This power made them mysterious.” Encountering a single magpie is believed to bring bad luck and since meeting Magpie, Sinéad laments, “it inked itself all over everything”. In the novel, Magpie is metonymic for the entrenched culture of shame in Ireland. The book addresses many of the topics that the Irish have traditionally avoided discussing outright: cancer, miscarriage, abortion, child abuse, spousal abuse, alcoholism, marital discord, adultery, queerness, homophobia, racism, mental illness, suicide, Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes. Official state memory buries these experiences, and collective memory is reluctant to acknowledge them, but as Sinéad remarks, “The body remembers.”
Sinéad is confined in a state institution ‑ an underfunded, crowded and crumbling hospital ward in Galway city. Feeney depicts the west of Ireland as a final foothold of state-sanctioned religious subjugation, where cathedrals, hospitals and prisons are interchangeable spaces of incarceration. Sinéad notes that the cathedral visible from her hospital window “was once a prison”, which was rebuilt and is “now a large cold church under the grey Galway fretful sky, ghosts of inmates could be imagined beating their chests for redemption or love inside its walls”. Correspondingly, “The Ward” is a stifling “six-bedded” unit featuring “Much Hospital Paraphernalia” and an “elaborate grotto of religious knick-knacks”.
The oppressively Irish mise-en-scène provides ample opportunity for Feeney to display her sharply satirical wit and deliciously dark humour. The city hospital is the site of births, deaths, miraculous healings, and extraordinary happenings of a rather different sort. A disturbed woman whacks her roommate on the head with a travel-sized hairdryer during a row, a savvy granny organises the complicated delivery of Padre Pio’s mitten on the Navan bus to save the life of a fellow invalid and another patient zooms around the ward on a wheelie commode due to the shortage of wheelchairs. Alarmed by the possibility of ending up as a corpse with bad roots and brassy hair, Sinéad grabs her husband’s arm and issues explicit instructions:
Like if I were to die suddenly you need to make a hair appointment immediately. I’m a state … I’m not fucking joking … being laid out would mean Gawpers … Round our way, they love if you’re laid out at home and they get a cup of tea. They clatter the cup off things to show their presence, and walk upstairs and have a good look around your house, check if you’re wearing a wig, or if the corpse has glasses on. My granny was laid out with ridiculous frozen-ice-blue eyeshadow, and she looked like Ivana Trump.
Initially Sinéad is overwhelmed by fear and wholly preoccupied by her own situation, but gradually she becomes aware of the plight she shares with those surrounding her in hospital. She recounts, “I lay there, encased and listening to the news of others,” while outside is “a new Ireland I had forgotten all about”. She temporarily forgets about this “new Ireland” because her immediate, lived reality reveals it to be a misleading myth. As Anne Enright puts it, “Ireland is a series of stories it tells itself. None of them are true.” Similarly, her fellow novelist Feeney interrogates sweeping national narratives by showcasing the tremendous power of individual storytelling. The chorus of women in As You Were share their heart-breaking personal histories, which counter the romantic national mythologies propagated by the state. Feeney combines linguistic verve, biting irony, and unflinching commentary on modern Ireland to produce a tragicomic tour-de-force. Shocking, exhilarating, and life-affirming, As You Were is a masterful debut by a fresh new voice in Irish fiction and a contender for one of the best books of the year. This novel will make you gasp, laugh and cry in equal measure, and it will shake you to your core.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Research Fellow in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. She has taught at Maynooth University, the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School (SUISS). She is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). Dawn has also published in Irish Studies Review, Review of Irish Studies in Europe (RISE), Breac, Callaloo, Open Library of Humanities, The Stinging Fly, Sunday Business Post, the Political Studies Association Blog, Four Nations History, and Writing the Troubles. She is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books, The Honest Ulsterman and The Irish Times. Follow her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda.