Just the one this time, because I had a lot to say…
Belinda McKeon – Tender
I keep thinking about this book. It’s one of those books that falls into the ‘wary of because of hype’ category for me, although in this case the hype was to do with McKeon’s first novel, Solace. But there were good murmurings about this, and even though I feel like we dwell far too much on the past in Irish literary fiction, the slipping back to the 1990s wasn’t at all unpleasant. I’m not that much younger than the characters, though a few years makes a big difference at that age; this was a time that I’d lived through as opposed to being something known only through the elders’ stories. And it’s a world I know, if hazily; Catherine, the main character, is studying English and History of Art at Trinity and the courses she takes in her first couple of years are utterly faithful to the English Lit curriculum of the time. There’s college parties and then slipping into the adult world, and society hacks and charismatic artsy types (people I knew of, but never knew, as an undergrad).
But more than those little cultural familiarities is the utter honesty of the novel. Catherine is naive. And intense. And imperfect. When she meets James, he’s the best friend she’s ever had. And he’s gay, and she’s delighted in some ways – the cultural cache of it being something she uses, although not consciously, in her college life. She’s not a selfless kind type – she’s obsessed. And in love. She is in love with this boy who will never love her back – which is not to say that intimacy between them is entirely ruled out. The tiny details of this are just glorious – I have never been madly in love with my charismatic and sometimes annoying gay best friend but I feel like I have. This is heart-on-the-page stuff, not in the sense of being biographically true necessarily (and I know McKeon has alluded to this in interviews) but being emotionally true, and human, in all the messiness and selfishness that youth brings with it. (And non-youth, too, if we’re honest.)
As the novel progresses we move closer to a historical event that I wasn’t quite sure we needed, though in retrospect I think it does fit; we also jump forward to ‘now’ and see how the characters are in the alleged ‘real world’. I wasn’t mad about this, and I don’t think we needed quite so much of it, or for it to be quite so tidy, but the ending is gorgeous. And I’ve thought about it, and discussed with people, and the novel as a whole has filtered into my consciousness more than most books ever do. Oh, Catherine, I think. And then, oh, James. And oh, all of us, and the people we love and how badly we love them sometimes.