Published by Jonathan Cape London
ACTS of Desperation is the debut novel of Megan Nolan, a young writer from Waterford. Set in Dublin between April 2012 and September 2014 (with interludes from Athens, 2019), it ruminates over an immensely toxic relationship between our unnamed narrator and a slightly older man, intensified by covert alcohol abuse and intense self-loathing. Although clearly aimed at a female audience, this is as far from chick-lit as you can get.
Ciaran is a half-Danish writer who is instantly unlikeable to everyone but the girl. She’s immediately infatuated with his perceived beauty; he’s tall, blonde, grumpily confident in that superior way that people who hate all other people convey.
It’s not long before the pair is a couple, on pretentious dates that consist of walking around Dublin eating apples, occasionally stopping into a museum or gallery. Their social life consists of art openings and going to gigs that their friends’ bands are playing.
The un-named narrator is a college drop-out, working admin jobs as she tries to figure out what to do with her life. When Ciaran comes on the scene, all she wants to do is please him, often to her detriment.
He doesn’t pretend to be a nice guy, at least from what we can gather from her point of view, and his boorish behaviour towards colleagues and acquaintances, and especially his girlfriend, certainly paints him as highly unpleasant.
Almost a coming of age tale, Acts of Desperation is ultimately the story of a point in this young woman’s life that threatens to define her. The narrator is unfailingly honest, dwelling on her own shortcomings, uncovering a warts and all character study of a 21st century woman.
Because it’s so raw, it’s hard to like the character, as every aspect of her is on show, from her narcissism to insecurity and willingness to be defined by a man. But she’s also terribly self-aware, knows she’s a ‘bad feminist’, is conflicted about what society expects of her.
No holds barred depictions of female sexuality are nothing new, but lately there’s been a trend towards the toxic nature it might take. Michaela Coel’s ground-breaking TV series I May Destroy You springs to mind immediately, as a work that endeavours to explore the complicated and sometimes murky waters of respect and consent.
It came out last year, after the success of Fleabag which arguably led the way for it, and it delves into the psychology of women broken by the pressures put on them, by themselves and by society, while also focusing on the considerable effort still being made to un-objectify womankind.
Normal People, both the novel and TV adaptation, also opened up the perspective of the young women of this day and age, who are faced with differing opinions from all sides about how to behave and what to put up with in the modern world.
But the (for want of a better description) “highly-strung woman” from literary fiction has long been a trope, from your pining romantics like Catherine Earnshaw and Marianne Dashwood, to every figure longed after by Coleridge and Keats, lusted over by Byron.
Ciaran himself has a bit of the Byron about him; not quite mad, bad and dangerous to know but certainly someone to avoid for the sake of sanity.
Very much from the view-point of the narrator, it’s as close to being in someone’s head as you’re likely to get. She’s the star of her own show, even an anti-hero, deeply flawed and often manic but self-described as beautiful.
Of course, first-person narrators can be unreliable. I had a hard time picturing her, and also him. There were certain inconsistencies between descriptions, and even aspects of their personalities, which could possibly be put down to an authentic device about memories constantly changing according to mood and feeling, but could also be poor editing.
Acts of Desperation is what I would describe as a downer. It’s well written, with beautiful observations and insightful thoughts, especially in the dispatches from Athens. The character grows and reflects, but never finds peace. An impressive debut and worth a read, but make sure to line up a cheerful palate cleanser to lift your mood once you’ve finished.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on 14 04 21