As You Were by Elaine Feeney

Published by Harvill Secker

ARE you the type of person who must salute a single magpie, lest the solo corvid cast its sorrowful curse? Do you sigh with relief and lift with delight when you see two, for joy? Is it even something that occurs to you at all, irrational as it may be to suggest that a group of birds, or lack of, can alter your fate?

If you’re Sinead Hynes, Magpie will be your confidant, even your confessor. She will be the one you confide your biggest secret to before she flies off, indifferent to the life changing news you’ve just shared.

Regardless of the passing of time and the casting off of certain traditions and rituals, the people of Ireland are still creatures of habit, of cautious faith in the mystical unknown. Other pisreógs often adhered to are to not walk under a ladder, refrain from setting a new pair of shoes on the table, enter and leave someone’s home through the same door.

Leaving a Child of Prague statue outside to ensure good weather for a wedding is another one, but only if it’s been accidentally beheaded, with the head glued back on. We Irish are a cheery bunch, when it comes to superstition.

Introducing the main character and subject of the book by way of pisreógs is an exceedingly shrewd choice on behalf of the author, Elaine Feeney. It begins in a flurry of sentences and broken lines, and continues with sharp italics when the narrator recalls the furious words of her father whenever she fell ill as a child.

The inventive and deeply effective style continues throughout the story, with an element of stream of consciousness unnervingly distilling the otherwise straightforward narrative.

While As You Were deals with universal concerns; healthcare, family commitments, lost loves, the tangled complications of married life, it’s a uniquely Irish story, peculiar in its cast of familiar, though not stock characters.

Set mostly in a mixed-gender hospital ward, Sinead observes the other patients and the various healthcare workers that flit in and out of their lives, and reflects on her own state of affairs.

Margaret Rose Sherlock is a working class mother who has suffered a stroke, and is dealing with her recovery while dealing with a wayward husband and mostly-grown up child who has found herself in a predicament of her own. Jane Lohan is the elder statesperson of the group, afflicted by dementia but breaking out into startling lucidity at often just the right time.

Sinead has been pilfering her neighbour Shane’s Wi-Fi while he lies next to her, incapacitated by heart surgery needed after years of paralysis following a motorcycle accident. Patrick Hegarty, a politician mollycoddled by his daughter lets others fuss while he sits in befuddlement at the position in which he finds himself.

Australian nurse Molly Zane pontificates her words of sympathy and gentle admonishment, porter Michal Piwaski, a frequent face on the ward “neither apologetic nor shy […] didn’t read social clues very well, which gave him accidental power.”

It’s an extraordinarily well observed character study of a group pulled together through nothing more than the circumstance of their health. Sinead sits and judges and empathises and regards, anything to take her mind off her own life, which she’s assessing from her current situation, both the future and the past.

Taking place between the Marriage Referendum and the Repeal of the Eight Amendment, some of the most striking passages refer to the inequality being faced by women in Ireland over the years, in a stark, angry and frequently darkly funny way, the type of humour that springs forth when rage is shimmering behind it.

The Mother and Baby Home in Tuam gets its mention, as do other institutions and practices now deemed deeply shameful in their treatment of women and their offspring born out of wedlock. Margaret Rose’s complicated family situation sheds light on the fact that taboos still exist, and women largely bear the brunt of them.

A novel of great linguistic feat, poetic and experimental in a more accessible way than some of its recent forbearers, As You Were is a marvel.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 09 09 2020

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