Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue

Virago Press

I managed to do that most hallowed of things; get to this book without knowing a single thing about it. The title doesn’t give a lot away, nor does its cover, but from having read O’Donoghue’s debut offering, Promising Young Women, I had a notion of the tone and themes, so snapped it up without investigating further when it was suggested to me.

I’m glad I did, in that the book starts as one thing and through various changes of course, ends up quite another. We are introduced to narrating character Charlotte “Charlie” Regan, a trained filmmaker making ends meet as a waitress in a coffee shop while waiting for a big break to fall in to her lap. Her father is desperately ill with cancer and is constantly in and out of hospital, and pressure has been put on her by her mother not to stray too far or to get too ambitious while they still have time left with him.

Add to that a self-loathing stemming from her lack of direction or accomplishment as she approaches thirty, a demeaning side-line business in amateur pornography in order to pay the bills and a complicated relationship with her best friend Laura, who she not only has romantic feelings towards but is also making significant traction in her career in their mutual field, Charlie needs something, anything to give her an excuse to flee her increasingly claustrophobic world and re-unite with Laura to relive the good old days.

When a letter comes from the Cork Film Festival inviting her and Laura to the city to showcase their film It Takes a Village in the next few weeks’ time, she jumps at it. Her father gives her his blessing; the film is based on a tragic, momentous incident in his life as a child on a west of Kerry island called Clipim. He is an Irish man in London, self-made and proud, with a back-story that changes narrative every time he tells it. The film is an homage to him, poorly researched as it turns out to be, and the showing of it in Cork proves to be a turning point for Charlie, in examining her life, her relationships, her identity and the story of what exactly happened on that island in November, 1963.

Scenes of a Graphic Nature has a lot to say, about a lot of things, and it all gets a bit crowded in. O’Donoghue writes with confidence, and with a sort-of detached authority; she’s originally from Cork herself, but has spent many years in London as a professional writer. She knows her way around a good metaphor and throws up astute observations of Ireland seen through the eyes of outsiders. Some of these observations are flattering, often they are not, and I found a certain patriotic defensiveness rear up from time to time with the stereotypical depiction of certain aspects of Irish rural life, and of the sins of the past that we are still paying for.

Charlie is a complex character who, like the book, doesn’t really know where she’s going. She’s an awkward young, gay English woman with an Irish father and as a result never feels like she fits in. Her search for a place to call home leads her to some uncomfortable truths about her father’s version of things versus reality, and some introspective examinations into why and how she is where she is.

The other characters, seen through Charlie’s eyes, are less three-dimensional. Laura is a vivacious blonde used to getting her own way, largely unconcerned with using people for her own gain or hurting their feelings because she knows she’ll get away with it. Maria, an American bar manager on the island is provided with an explanation for her being there quite late on in the book, but isn’t given much other personality other than the role of love interest. The Irish people and islanders encountered are variously inward looking and prone to having one too many; the educated imports to the island are romantically minded Londoners getting out of the rat race. Even the Irish doctor they encounter explains her credentials as having worked in Whitehall for ten years before decamping to Clip.

Although it’s a well-written work, that goes to interesting places I wasn’t expecting it to, I have bones to pick with certain loose ends not being tied up and character motivations left unexplained. Its mix of genres doesn’t always work, but sometimes pays off in unexpected ways. The writer’s style is fresh and her clever ways with words undeniable, but some subjects broached are too big to condense into side-notes. Not out in print until August, Scenes of a Graphic Nature is available now digitally and as an audiobook.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on July 1st, 2020.

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