Reading Ireland Month – Flattery and Nolan

I finally got my act together for this year’s Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy and read a pair of novels with throwaway titles – Nothing Special, and Ordinary Human Failings. They may have different settings, but both involve a teenager who has grown out of school, and both have broken families. However, I loved one and wasn’t very bothered by the other, but which was which?

Nothing Special by Nicole Flattery

This debut novel’s two-tone cover called to me, and once I discovered it was set in 1967 in New York, largely at Andy Warhol’s Factory, I couldn’t not get a copy, although it’s had to wait a year to get to the top of the pile.

Mae is seventeen. She lives with her alcoholic mother and Mikey, who would be a surrogate dad for Mae. Mae is fed up of high school and drops out, riding the escalators at Macy’s all day hoping to be noticed – and she is. A job offer comes her way, and she is hired as one of a team of typists for Andy Warhol. Soon she and Shelley are tasked to a special job of transcribing tapes made by Warhol of conversations between his friends.

Warhol himself is peripheral to the novel, just being there at the other side of the room sometimes. Mae and Shelley may have become friends and go to some of the parties together, but they are obsessed with their tasks. Mae’s batch of tapes mostly feature Ondine, (Robert Olivo, Warhol’s favourite male superstar) and she feels like she knows him inside out through them. Shelley meanwhile is working on one featuring Edie (Edie Sedgwick, Warhol’s favourite female superstar), and something in it breaks her.

In real life, the transcriptions of the tapes Warhol made will be published in 1968 as a ‘novel’ called A which purports to be 24hrs in the life of Ondine. I found a copy in a charity shop last year, but found it unreadable – it’s just relentless, in the section to your right, Ondine and D for Drella – that’s Warhol nickname, and below it’s Ondine and Edie (who is T for Taxi(ne) ) – just chatting about not a lot… it’s tedious! I shan’t be reading the whole thing.

But you can see with the two different typing formats of single and double columns, that supports Flattery’s novel with its two typists.

While everything about Nothing Special rings true, the sections at home with Mae, her mother and Mikey have an immediacy that those in the Factory don’t. This is clever on Flattery’s part – putting the two typists on the outside there, but with their headphones glued to their ears day in, day out. Their world becomes an imaginary, internalised one, reliving the life of Ondine and friends and it takes them over.

It’s powerful, but I was ultimately left wanting. We never meet Ondine or Edie directly, Drella only in glimpses at a distance. But in giving us a few crumbs of the real people in the tapes, would that have spoiled things? Possibly, but this novel didn’t quite do it for me. Susan however very much enjoyed it, and you can read her review here.

Source: Own copy. Bloomsbury, hdbk, pbk due March 28, 240 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

Ordinary Human Failings by Megan Nolan

Down below in Skyler Square the trouble was passing quickly from door to door, mothers telling mothers, not speaking aloud but somehow saying: baby gone, bad man, wild animal.

As this is going on at the estate, we meet Carmel, sitting in a cafe, thinking about past relationships – about Derek whom she’d fallen for when they lived back in Waterford, and about the grimness of her life now. Tom is a young journalist, who had been out with Ruth from the estate, and is the first on the scene after the body of three-year-old Mia Enright was found by the bins. He’s onto a scoop if he can keep it contained, but the mood in Skyler Square is changing: it doesn’t take long to discover that residents think Lucy Green, aged ten did it. She was the last child seen out playing with Mia, another young woman from the square confides.

A hot knot of excitement throbbed in his throat.
There was nothing better than this, the feeling of stepping onto the precipice of what was definitely worthwhile when you still didn’t know what it was.

Lucy is Carmel’s daughter, the unexpected pregnancy from her affair with Derek, who had abandoned her for a job elsewhere. We flashback to Waterford in 1978:

Some of the first warnings of pregnancy were not unlike the physical markers she had experienced when falling in love. There was the gaping feeling in her chest which swooped in without warning and winded her. There was a vague nausea and dread at all times. There was the comically heightened emotional life, everything living just on the surface so that the sight of a puppy or the news of someone she had never met having a stroke could make her burst into tears.

Carmel did all the things she had heard of to get rid of the baby, but soon it was too late. Her mother Rose’s solution was to move to London. They all went, Mum, Dad, even brother Ritchie too, to a flat in Skyler Square, South of the river, where being an Irish immigrant family, they were treated with suspicion. Ritchie struggled to get a job and keep it when he did, he and his father both sinking into alcoholism. Rose did everything – she was mum to Lucy, Carmel never really bonded with her daughter. Then Rose went and died leaving a family in limbo.

This is the still the situation when Lucy was taken into custody, and Tom’s paper paying (with police permission) to put Carmel, Ritchie and their father, John, into a hotel until the furore subsides, where of course, they’ll be unavailable to anyone else and Tom can ply them with booze and coax their stories out of them, or so he hopes.

Interspersing the current events with sections from Carmel and Ritchie back in Waterford, Nolan gradually uncovers the Green’s story. Carmel could have had a different future, they all could have, but luck didn’t go their way and circumstances and repressed secrets conspired against them. You really feel for Carmel and Ritchie, she the beautiful Irish girl observing the world from outside, he knowing what his alcoholism is doing to him. What will happen for this broken family?

Tom, meanwhile, is outwardly a nice young man – but scratch him and his blind ambition surfaces, in which ordinary people are tabloid fodder and to be exploited. He reminded me of local journalist Olly Stephens in Broadchurch: at the end of series 2, Olly has left for the Big Smoke and a tabloid – a Tom in the making. He’s good at getting information out of people about ‘ordinary human failings’, manipulating Lucy’s teacher, Miss Dillon, with relative ease, and then the Green family in their hotel prison – no-one must know they’re there. Carmel, however, is a much tougher nut to crack.

I really enjoyed Nolan’s first novel, Acts of Desperation, published in 2022 which is a fine example of the now overworked ‘disaster woman’ trope and got her compared inevitably with Sally Rooney. Nolan now lives in London, and maybe this has added an edge to her writing, allowing her to address both sides of the story – the heart-breaking family saga, and the story fed to the outside world. I really enjoyed Ordinary Human Failings, which is longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2024.

Source: Own copy. Jonathan Cape hardback, 218 pages, paperback out soon. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

8 thoughts on “Reading Ireland Month – Flattery and Nolan

  1. JacquiWine says:

    It’s a pity you found the Flattery somewhat unsatisfying as the premise sounds very appealing. Ah, well – that’s how it goes sometimes. The Megan Nolan, on the other hand, seems more accomplished, and it’s good to see it on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.(I sent some of my book subscription customers Nolan’s Acts of Desperation, and they liked it a lot!)

    • Annabel (AnnaBookBel) says:

      I think Megan Nolan is definitely one to watch. Of the Flattery, I’ve read similar NYC stories that mirror Mae’s homelife so it didn’t feel new, whereas the Factory scenes promised so much, but kept us at arms’ length.

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    I’ve been back and forth about Nothing Special as most of my work is transcription (and when I’m working on a book with an author or ghost writer in particular it can be tedious but you find you know someone really, really well and it’s weird when you see them on the TV, etc.!). Still can’t tell whether I’d enjoy it but I will pick it up if it happens my way.

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