Book Reviews

This impactful story explores many aspects of Irish social history and the culture of shame and denial that shaped our past.

Reviewed by: Síne Quinn

‘That part of the west that was full of rocks and full up with sadness in the little sacks grown men develop under their eyes, the accumulation of tears they don’t cry as they walk along, shut down like an out-of-season café.’

Poet Elaine Feeney’s debut novel, As You Were observes human interaction with a keen eye, in particular the orchestrated side steps Irish people make to dance around pain, hurt and anger. Steps that are handed down from one generation to the next, carefully choreographed but never acknowledged. How unspoken words can linger and take up all the space in a room, or how unshed tears can become features etched into faces, the ‘accumulation’ of unshed tears. Feeney doesn’t mince her words, in parts As You Were is hard-hitting and hard to stomach.

Set in a hospital in Galway, Sinéad Hynes is a patient in a mixed ward reflecting back on her life. With a wide cast of characters, representing the many moving parts of human life in all its forms, with added illness, the humane novel is saturated in sadness and regret. But there’s something liberating and uplifting in the patients’ solidarity and their scramble for kindness, despite all they have endured. The humour is dark and sometimes sardonic. Sinéad is uncomfortably numb but simultaneously restless. She is in denial, a place that many Irish people seek refuge, but now her occupancy is coming to an end. Time is not on her side, her illness has caught up with her and hard, cold reality is hot on its heels.

The impactful story explores many aspects of Irish social history and the culture of shame and denial that shaped our past. Not only does Feeney examine her different characters’ malaises, she traces the systemic mishandling of the Irish health care system, the mother and baby institutions and the overall lack of systems to support women in Ireland for generations. It’s visceral in parts and highlights that not every patient can be healed, or sometimes a patient chooses not to recover.

Though difficult to follow in some places and sometimes hard to observe, in particular her husband’s realisation of the extent of Sinéad’s illness, the dialogue is strong and the interactions acutely described. With a wide cast of diverse yet well developed characters, As You Were would make a powerful transition to stage.

SÍne Quinn is a writer, editor and creative writing facilitator. Holy Shocking Saints: The Extraordinary Lives of Twelve Irish Saints by Síne Quinn and Margaret Anne Suggs is available in book shops nationwide.

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