Book Reviews

Oona charts the journey of its young protagonist as she navigates life after the loss of her mother and searches for a sense of home, both literally and figuratively. Written without the letter "o", it's an innovative exploration of the character's world.

Reviewed by: Regina de Búrca

This remarkable debut begins in an affluent suburb in New Jersey where thirteen-year-old Oona is coming to terms with her mother’s terminal illness. Oona’s story is told without the use of the letter ‘o’ and the omission highlights much that is missing from the girl’s life; indeed when her own name is truncated to ‘--na’, it feels like half of the girl has disappeared along with it.

Oona’s anguish is richly portrayed as the reader learns that she has not been told about the severity of her mother’s illness. Although Oona is from a privileged background, her emotional needs are overlooked. When her mother subsequently dies, layers of deep betrayal and abandonment compound her grief. Her inner development is put on hold yet her teenage life continues as expected as she experiences sex and drugs for the first time. The descriptions of Oona traversing life’s milestones are relatable and keenly felt while being darkly funny in places. Leaving suburban New Jersey to go travelling, Oona is in search of a fresh start and finds inspiration in her new surroundings.

Relocating permanently to the wilds of Leitrim – “emigrating in reverse” – over the course of the novel she regains her sense of self as she explores her love of art and language, the environment around her shaping her expression. The rural Irish landscape surrounding Oona changes following the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger economic boom, leading to a bereavement of a different kind.

The descriptions of landscape and colour are masterfully written building to a narrative that is as vivid as a painting. Nothing is wasted in this prose. Every part of this novel builds to convey an evocative bildungsroman, its Oulipian stylistic constraints serving the story rather than being experimental for the sake of it.

Although the novel engages deeply with themes of grief and loss, it is ultimately a hopeful story that depicts the resilience of the human spirit. Oona survives the trauma of her early teenage years as well as later challenges including the sudden death of her father, but it is only when she becomes a mother herself that she can process her pain fully and is restored to wholeness, as though the ‘o’ represents a circle that has come to completion. A portrait of an artist who accepts and grows from adversity, “Oona” is a novel that is utterly unforgettable.

Regina de Búrca grew up in a bookshop in the West of Ireland. In fact, her earliest memories are of being surrounded by books. Today when she is not reading, she is a writer and works as a content editor. She is currently living in Dublin 1 still surrounded by bookshops.


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