Tender was my favourite read of 2015 and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is about this book that got under my skin. Could it be that it is a university novel set Dublin in the 1990s – a time when I too was at university there? Is it the epigraph, taken from James Salter’s Light Years that rings so true?
You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.
Or possibly it is the beautifully simple writing, the perfect characterisation and the fact that this story of obsessive love and desire feels so utterly, utterly true that makes Tender an unforgettable read.
It is 1997 and Catherine Reilly is in her first year studying English and Art History at Trinity College Dublin. She meets James Flynn, a friend of her flatmates and the two could not be more different. Flamboyant, worldly and open, James is antidote to the narrow sheltered life she has led so far in rural Longford. He has travelled and is open about his feelings. She is insular and insecure. James says
the stuff that, Catherine now realised, she had always thought you were meant to keep silent.
The pair become inseparable – the best of friends. James opens Catherine’s mind to new ways of looking at the world and the descriptions of how this new friendship makes Catherine feel resonate with that youthful sense of the whole world opening up before you.
To the rest of their friends they seem like a sweet couple. But they are not a couple and just as Catherine thinks she may have sexual feelings for James, he admits that he is gay. Catherine’s reaction to the news is pitched perfectly for the times and for her lack of experience. She feels a proprietorial novelty that she now has a gay friend, yet knows this reaction is childish and innapropriate. Her sheltered upbringing means that her admiration for James is one of breathless adolescence and soon their friendship becomes all consuming. She begins to think about him all the time, bend her opinions to be in tune with him.
They were so alike, the two of them, so alike in every way — and yet, there were moments when she saw the ways in which they were so different. And she… did not like those moments.
Catherine wants James for herself. She becomes jealous of the time he spends with other friends and eventually her feelings and their relationship shift into dangerous sexual territory which can only lead to disaster.
It was not that she did not want him to be happy; it was that she could not deal with the idea that it was others who could make him happy, as he seemed to be now. She wanted him to be only her friend. She wanted the best of his attention; she wanted the highest pitch of his energy; she wanted to be the reason he was fascinated, delighted, amused.
This is where Tender could have faltered, in what is essentially a love affair between a gay man and his straight female friend, but what elevates it is the intricacy of the characterisation. This is no Will & Grace style comedy, Catherine doesn’t want to just be a best friend, nor is she a ‘fag-hag’. Catherine is a complex character – manipulative, selfish and often petulant, but she is at heart a decent person, torn apart by her love for a man, when that love is predicated on him being something he is not. James too is wholly believable, lively, funny and very real, his predicament as a gay man in Ireland in the 1990s rendered with a knowing sensitivity and clarity. In an argument with Catherine he reminds her that
that every day there was still the fear; not being able to hold his boyfriend’s hand in the street, for instance – did she have any idea what that felt like? . . . Probably not, because she was one of those people, wasn’t she? She was one of those people who begrudged them every precious scrap they had
McKeon captures perfectly James’ sense of isolation and pain at being unable to share life with someone he truly loves, of his inability to be openly gay without fear of recrimination and of his desperate need for love and for human contact which he finds in Catherine.
Lonely: that was the word he had written over and over. Alone: that was another. Never: that had been another.
For her part, Catherine, who is studying the work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, adopts Hughes’ line ‘What happens in the heart simply happens’, to justify her increasingly desperate attempts to keep James with her. Hints of the Hughes/ Plath relationship float through the book, prefiguring the notion that this will not end well for either of them. As their relationship deepens and becomes both intense and equally more painful, other characters slip away from the narrative until there is just Catherine and James and a claustrophobic sense of suffocation and self-deceit. The book begins to feel like a time bomb, primed for detonation. Catherine and James know that this cannot end well, as do we and it is testament to McKeon’s skill as a writer that no one becomes the villain of the piece but instead we are witness to a relationship based on friendship and co-dependence that is both moving and heart-breaking.
The rumblings of the Celtic Tiger are there in the background, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland are also woven into the narrative, but there are no gimmicks in Tender. It is essentially a love story, yet McKeon perfectly captures that feverish, frantic need to be loved, that longing to be known entirely by another person. Catherine and James are portrayed with such a depth and unflinching honesty as to be entirely absorbing and the book rings with truth and humanity. McKeon never presents the central relationship as anything other than a genuine love regardless of the sexuality of those involved and the perfect ending takes us right back to that well-chosen epigraph – you only have one friend like that, there can’t be two.