Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth

Published by Borough Press

Does socialising with wild abandon seem like a distant memory to you, already? When you watch the telly and see people congregating without a care in the world do you wince slightly? Have you retreated into a mostly indoors world, where video calls with family and friends are your only social interactions, where social media and online news and entertainment are your only connections with the wider world at large?

For most of us, this will get real old, real quick; which is where books and board games and socially distanced long bracing walks come in, but for Jenny McLaine, protagonist of Adults, it would be a dream come true. At least, to begin with. When first we meet her she’s agonising over the perfect caption for an Instagram post of a croissant. For the sound of mind this is an utter non-issue (or an Insta story issue, a grainy, unfiltered and nonchalant shot that will disappear into the ether where it belongs after 24 hours). For Jenny, however, it’s a chance to impress, to bolster her ‘brand’ and popularity and win favour with the online elite.

Of course there’s more to it than just that, which we learn as the narrative widens. She wasn’t always like this; she’s a woman in her mid-30s with a semi-successful career on a female-oriented website, who uses social media to spread the word on her writing. Fair enough, in this day and age that’s simply what you do. But a string of personal catastrophes has found her unravelling, seeking more meaning than she ought to in the mundane and ostracising her nearest and dearest in the process.

Adults is the third novel by Emma Jane Unworth, a follow up to her soaringly popular second offering, Animals. Also published as Grown Ups, it could also easily have been titled One Girl and Her Phone; although she’s not a girl, she’s a woman of 35 whose offline misery compels her to online mania. The story examines the daily practices of millennials and their social media lives, and what’s really going on behind the witty posts on their platforms of choice, the self-deprecating images, carefully constructed tweets and sarcastic Facebook statuses.

Unsworth has an enviable knack of making her reader sympathise with her insecure, immature, self-centred but spunky heroine. When we meet her, Jenny is spiralling downward and at her absolute most unpleasant, which is a brave way of introducing a character. Through reminiscences we are given insight into how she was before; intelligent, focused, ambitious and attractive, and we learn how she has got to this self-destructive point. The author is equally as impressive in drawing realistic, flawed but interesting supporting characters, like Jenny’s ex-boyfriend, her best friend and, most pertinently, her mother.

The tale as old as time, that difficult relationship between a daughter and her mother, is at the centre-right of the story. It’s always been strained; that we learn from both flashbacks to earlier times and when her mother comes to stay in the midst of a crisis. It’s through these interactions where a niggling sense of unreliable narrator emerges; although her mother is obviously gregarious and more out-there than most, for the most part she appears loving towards he daughter. Jenny, on the other hand, drives home her ghastliness with entirely flimsy justifications.

At the centre-left of the narrative is her ex-boyfriend, who has recently left her after a number of years together. A series of sad events led them to the break-up, and Jenny’s loosening grip on real priorities. At the very heart of the story is Jenny’s relationship with, yes, her phone. How she communicates with her friends. The excess time she spends cultivating her online presence. The growing obsession with an Instagram star with an outwardly idyllic life. Adults is a very revealing story about delusion and downfall. It’s very funny; tragedy and comedy toe a fine line.

Like Irish writer Sophie White’s Filter This, it examines the modern woman’s self-induced pressure to be perfect, and what easier way to be perfect than behind a screen, where things can be edited and manipulated to the point of artifice. Adults is a caustic satire on the worst of social media, and doesn’t hold back in its damning of the online world that has overtaken the real one.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 25.03.20

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