A novel of navel-gazing

This Happy by Niamh Campbell

Over recent years, Ireland has become a real hot-bed for new literary talent. It goes way beyond the stellar success of Sally Rooney and Baileys winner Lisa McInerny. So when I heard about another Irish debut that sounded really enticing I arranged a copy.

Claire McAllister on a Red Couch, Patrick Swift, 1957

I would have picked this book up just for the cover anyway, which is a detail from the 1951 painting by Patrick Swift, Claire McAllister on a Red Couch. The subject’s stare is rather challenging, she doesn’t look happy.

This Happy is narrated by Allanah, who awakes in the novel’s prologue to find herself alone.

As I lay in the bed it occurred to me that he could not have gone for a walk in the lane, or to visit the landlady, or to buy supplies, because the sun still hadn’t come up. the kitbag that he travelled with was gone from the top of the inlaid chest. And then, Oh hell, I thought: he’s gone back to his wife.

Six years later, Allanah is in Dublin, on her way to meet her husband from work, when she sees the landlady again. This triggers memories of her first love: the one she gave up everything for, the one she went to the remote cottage with, the one who left her there alone after three weeks, the one called Harry.

She’d met Harry in London where he was working for the BBC as a scriptwriter. She knew he was married, he was much older than her, she was just twenty-three. She didn’t need much persuading to go with him to the Irish retreat where he took himself off each year to write. She didn’t tell him she gave up her job and lodgings in London. During their three weeks there, he writes, she pootles and plays house, they have sex, the landlady in the farm down the road looks after them. You just know it was never going to work.

Now she is newly married, her husband is closer in age to her, he had a daughter by another woman some years ago. He is a history teacher, but has political ambitions. As they arrive back home, to his home, now their home – she is troubled by the memories stirred by seeing the landlady. Why did she get married?

I also did it because I needed something to happen to me: I had imprisoned myself amidst chilly achievements, and because I loved my husband with honeymoon love – because I curled into my husband’s chest in bed and chanted, passionately, stay with me let us go away together somewhere live together only you and me and you and me and you and me only. I said out loud certain things I would have wished to say to Harry, all those years ago, but could not say, because – at the at time – I was not entitled to anything.

Life carries on for Allanah and her unnamed husband; he continues to build a local political presence, they talk babies, she thinks of Harry.

And that’s it! 309 pages of intense navel-gazing from a thirty-year-old who loves being part of something good, but you always think she’s worried she’s settled for second best. This novel is more like a meditation on love and lust being virtually plotless. After reading the first couple of chapters, we know most of the story. All the way through I was waiting for something to happen but bar the pulling together of some ends in the last section, nothing goes on. Allanah’s ambivalence makes her a hard character to like too.

Like Alannah’s thoughts, Campbell’s writing style is intense. Everything is told through Alannah, no speech marks for reported speech, as is the vogue (cf Sally Rooney). Her thoughts on her time at the cottage go round and round, repeating themselves throughout the book. By the time I was into the last third, I was getting fed up of this, wishing the novel had been a novella. The individual thoughts of Alannah can be witty and catty – she is quite sharp-tongued – but I didn’t need them to be repeated. This repetition is, of course, very real; we continually mull over things that concern us, making little changes with each iteration, but on the page it becomes a bit tedious. While I appreciated Campbell’s thought experiment and writing, I did find this novel rather disappointing as a whole. To extract from Alannah’s words quoted above, ‘I needed something to happen’. (6/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you. Pub June 2020, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, hardback, 309 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links)

14 thoughts on “A novel of navel-gazing

  1. Kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Um. I don’t mind books where not a lot happens, but I can’t say I feel impelled to read this one… I think you’d have to bond very strongly with the protagonist to make it work!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      She was hard to like – even her husband called her ‘kit’ as she could be so catty. From the blurb’s language I was expecting more to have happened between her and Harry.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Had it been say 220 pages, it would have been fine, the writing was excellent. There was just too much of it.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I was expecting something more dramatic to have happened between her and Harry, so felt a bit cheated when it didn’t. Nice writing though (if you can cope with no speechmarks).

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    This sounds like more of a book for me than it was for you — your description of the style and themes reminds me of Motherhood by Sheila Heti, which I loved. And yes, I echo everyone else in saying that I would have picked it up just for the cover and ironic title!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think you’re right! I wanted to give Alannah a shake and tell her to stop dwelling on the past – it was all very real in that sense, but too repetitive for me.

  3. Cathy746books says:

    I am starting to get really wary of all these books where twenty/ thirty somethings muse for pages and pages on their bad choices. I was keen to read this one (probably because I love the cover) but may recalibrate my expectations!

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