Some strange things happened when I started reading You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir.
Firstly, my childhood home, where I lived from birth to the age of 15 went on the market. I had a look at it online; the occupants who bought it from my parents had changed very little, so looking at the rooms I grew up in was both nostalgic and a little painful. A few days later, a childhood friend who had lived on the same road contacted me on Facebook. We hadn’t been in touch in over 25 years and I began, as they say here in Northern Ireland, thinking long.
Memories from growing up in the 80s – playing with Sindys, making up dance routines to Bananarama songs, running in and out of the neighbors’ houses – all came flooding back as I read this lovely debut novel about being a ten year old girl growing up the 80s, doing all the things I used to do. While the book, with its poignancy and attention to detail spoke directly to my experience, anyone who remembers being 10 years old will read this book with a nostalgic smile.
You is the story of an unnamed girl (sometimes known by her nickname Little Miss Prim) who lives with her mother, brother and baby half brother on the banks of the River Liffey. She sees her father regularly, although he has a new family, but her mother is troubled by alcoholism and depression and sometimes can’t look after her children properly. Our girl has a lot to deal with.
‘I thought you weren’t supposed to drink because you’re on those tablets’ you say. ‘You,’ she slurs, ‘you’re the cause of it all.’ You hate when she’s like this. ‘Go to bed Ma, and give me that bottle.’ She jumps up and lunges at you. ‘Get off my lip!’ she screams into your face, grabbing your clothes. ‘I wish none of youse had ever been born’.
Friends step in, but when tragedy strikes at the heart of the family, the girl is forced to renegotiate her place in the world in the best and maybe the only way a ten-year old can.
You is narrated in the second person, which at once draws us in to the thoughts and feelings of this loveable girl. Everything is told from her point of view, so her mother’s new boyfriend Kit is a pain, her aunt is a snob and her step sister Claire is a whiner. Like all ten year olds, the importance of things is subjective, so the fact that her best friend is moving to Wales is as upsetting as the fact that her father’s girlfriend is about to have another baby.
The reader is left to deduce what our narrator often cannot understand and the apparent simplicity of the narrative style belies a moving poignancy and understated intimacy. There is a touching moment when the girl tells her mother’s best friend Cora what a great Mum she would make, when it is clear to the reader that Cora is unable to have children. What is not spelled out in this novel is what is the most heartbreaking- little hidden moments of touching humanity.
Alongside this is NiChonchuir’s uncanny ability to capture what it’s like to be ten-years old. The simple pleasures of a drink of lemonade, imagining you are an orphan or deciding what would be worse, counting blades of grass or being hanged. The simple happiness that sweets can bring or a going for a ride in a fancy car. Watching the Eurovision or eating a sandwich. These are very recognisable moments.
Your ma lets you sample one of the salmon sandwiches which are cut hotel-style in little triangles. They’re yum-yum-pigs-bum so she lets you have one more for luck and you take your time over it.
She also perfectly captures that moment in a girl’s life when she is on the cusp of growing up, both wanting and not wanting to be older. The girl reads Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying in secret but still plays with her Sindy dolls in the privacy of her room. A haircut is a transformative moment and a strange encounter with her older cousin brings up feelings she has yet to properly process.
Your cousin Rory is fifteen. He told you once that he loved you. He only said it because he had you as a prisoner in his room and he tried to stick his tongue in your mouth. He held down your arms but you got away. Now you avoid him because he makes you feel weird
All of these moments are perfectly rendered with a recognizable clarity and warmth. There is an economy to the prose style as befits our narrators age, with short chapters and simple sentences which are often shot through with moments of arresting descriptive power.
Sometimes, when you look up the road on a sunny day, you can see a mirage of water floating over the top of the road. It looks like a small lake has floated down from the sky and is content to hover there all day. It’s cool; it reminds you of the Sahara desert and gives you a longing to be far, far away.
There is innocence to the thought process that makes the strong emotions, when they come, all the more affecting. And the strong emotions do come. This is a heartbreaking tale of lives shattered and rebuilt and yet it is also a charming evocation of childhood and a hymn to the kindnesses that people can show to one another.
You won’t need to visit your old childhood home to feel the pull of your own past when reading this lovely, affecting novel.
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