Three Little Truths by Eithne Shortall

Published by Corvus

It’s not often I wrestle with my feelings about a book I’ve just read, and tried to like. This is one of those times. I’m no stranger to commercial fiction, or chick lit, whatever you want to call it. I worship at the altar of Marian Keyes, offer gifts and offerings in the name of Lianne Moriarty, have a soft spot in my heart for the empress of them all, Maeve Binchy.

I’m no snob when it comes to fiction of this sort, and will defend its worth to anyone who challenges me. A book doesn’t have to be high literature to exude wit, intelligence and quality. Which is why I wanted to agree with those who have proclaimed Three Little Lies a cross between Keyes and Moriarty, but with all honesty simply can’t.

The story centres around three women who live on Pine Road, a nice street in Dublin filled with eccentric characters and an active community WhatsApp group. Martha has just moved there from Limerick, along with her husband and daughters, causing much fluttering behind curtains and speculation in the text chain about the family’s mysterious arrival.

Edie is a newly-wed, baby-crazy, eager-to-please naïve twenty-something, a doormat who allows her cartoon villain in-laws to insult her as they please and cheerily befriends the women of the street in order to fulfil her ‘impromptu drinks on a Friday evening’ dream.  

Robyn is the young mother of a four-year-old son who has recently moved back in with her parents after the break-up with her child’s father. Formerly a promising and popular school-girl her plans were waylaid when she fell under the spell of a Love/Hate style drug dealer who enticed her with a luxury apartment and a life taken care of, in exchange for fielding a few phone calls and providing a couple of alibies.

The three women are brought together through life on the street, supported by a great many characters provided largely for comic relief. I felt that these characters rarely rang true, broad in description and forced in tone. At the same time, I found myself unable to relate to any of them, not least the three main characters, which is surprising considering the vast number of women popping up in the periodic WhatsApp text exchanges and providing sounding boards for Martha, Edie and Robyn.

The few male characters are relegated fairly far down the pecking order of the narrative, but while they don’t have much to say or do the male figures in the three women’s lives are ultimately the cogs that drive the story forward.

Eithne Shortall is no slouch in the talent department. She’s an accomplished critic and chief arts writer for the Sunday Times Irish edition. Her previous offerings have shown promise, particularly the second, Grace after Henry, which dealt sensitively and astutely with grief, and all three works of her fiction are ambitious experiments in certain types of commercial fiction. But her style is simply incomparable to Keyes and Moriarty. She spins a good yarn, brings up some important topics successfully, but does so in a clumsy, poorly executed manner. The promise shown has failed to progress in her third book.

Over the course of the read I grew ever more frustrated with the artless style. It’s more spiel than story, in that reading it is like reading a transcription of a person telling a tale – I wonder if the experience would be different, more positive, if listened to via audiobook. The descriptions of actions and events read like lively, enthusiastic renditions of things that are happening in real time right in front of the writer, like a flurry of live Tweets, rather than evoking lyrical, descriptive language and allowing the reader to fill in some of the gaps themselves. The art of reading should be an exchange between writer and reader, and this seems too like a one-way street to be an enjoyable experience.Although none of the characters particularly appealed to me and despite the writing style, Shortall has managed to spin a good yarn; it’s well plotted and executed and no stone is left unturned by the end, which makes for a satisfying conclusion. The story would make a good screen adaptation – there’s plenty of intrigue and a few twists to keep a viewer’s interest. I’d leave consuming the story until that happens, or if an audiobook version is released. Substance over style should be a good thing, but in this case it doesn’t quite make the grade.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 27.11.19

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