'Between Dog And Wolf' helps Rahill come of age at last

Elske Rahill was still a student, and a single mother, when she began her debut novel.
Elske Rahill was still a student, and a single mother, when she began her debut novel.

ELSKE Rahill is perturbed. She’s brooding about the first review of her debut novel. It was glowing, and said the 31-year-old was “an intriguing and definitive voice of a new generation of Irish writers.” But Rahill is hard on herself.

As a teen, she acted in short films and in Fair City; at college, she acted at the Gate and Abbey theatres. She refused auditions, because acting no longer felt relevant, so why does she rate herself a failure? Rahill has written two plays; the first, After Opium, when she was 21, the second five years later. Both were staged, the first in the Project, the second in Bewley’s Cafe, but she dismisses them both.

Why do actors write? “If you want to act and to write, you need a combination of ego, and an interest in other people. I used to get a real buzz getting into another person, and it’s the same with writing. It’s a good exercise in understanding other people,” she says. She’s pleased with Between Dog and Wolf — it’s a sensational novel — but says she is a slow writer, and the novel took seven years to get published. But she has parallel achievements: degrees; work; and two sons. So why did the review make her uneasy? She says the reviewer didn’t ‘get it.’ “I really wasn’t trying to write a college novel, or despatches from college. That is the setting, because when I wrote it that was my environment.”

The book focuses on three students at Trinity College: Cassie has been dumped by an older man, an artist; her roommate, Helen, a friend from boarding school, is exploring her sexuality, and her boyfriend, Oisín, is a country boy who swings between misogyny and tenderness. There’s wild behaviour and graphic — though never gratuitous — sex, yet it’s not a typical coming-of-age novel. It’s concerned with inner lives, and behaviour.

“I find it very difficult to talk about the book, and say what it is about,” she says. “It sounds so presumptuous. It’s about gender and the difficulties of where that leads you. I don’t feel that any men and women, in my book, relate properly, and it’s not for want of trying. They get trapped by gender. And when Helen starts going out with Oisín, Cassie kind of loses her. When she does something really nasty to Helen, it’s done as a way to reconnect.” She shrugs. “It’s about motherhood, too.

“It started as three short stories, but none of them was working. I was trying to say too much about the three characters, and I realised that each of them was trying to do the same sort of thing, and that they belonged in one book. They are all so much in turmoil, and each narrative is quite private.

“The book came from a curiosity. I might see someone behave in a certain way, and try to understand ‘what is that like? What lies behind that behaviour’? I’d imagine their inner life. For example, pornography fascinates me, because I don’t get it, and I don’t want to get it. I don’t understand what is going on and why. I found it hard, at first, to find Oisín’s voice, because I didn’t have the same respect for him.”

The eldest of a family of “loads” of girls, she attended many schools, including a convent boarding school in Rathnew, and St Columba’s College. “I was a brat a school,” she says. “I hated it. I took my Leaving Certificate at The Institute, in Dublin, in the end.”

In the fourth year of her English degree, at Trinity, she became pregnant. Too sick to take her finals, she deferred until the following September. She did an M Phil in creative writing at Trinity. “In the M Phil, which I started when Phoenix was just a few months old, I used to sit there, breastfeeding in class.”

Being a single mother was difficult. “People were acting as if it was this terrible thing. I had one person say to me, ‘and you didn’t consider an abortion?’ I had broken up with his dad, I had no money, and no relationship with my mother. I was 22 and looked 16. But having a baby is wonderful. I found it quite healing. It was amazing, having this unconditional love for someone else.

“I still had this need to write,” she says. “It was my lifeline. Without it, I would have been lost. It’s very isolating, being a single mother when nobody around you has children. I was living in a flat in Tara Street. My sister would take Phoenix when I went to lectures, and I looked after him the rest of the time. I savoured his nap times. I wrote all the time.”

She worked to pay the rent: she was a face-painter, children’s entertainer, and an intern for the Lilliput Press. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep back then. I’d get up at 5am and write until 7am, when I had to get the baby up. I’d write at night, as well,” Rahill says.

Editors rejected the novel because of the graphic sex. “One publisher asked me to take some of the sex out. And I tried. But I couldn’t tell the story without it, because the characters’ psychology was so tied up with it.”

Rahill has moved to Burgundy, in Frnace, with her partner, Seán, and their three boys, including Elske’s stepson, and one-year-old Brocc.

“I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” she says. “Seán is a writer, too, and an editor. It’s possible to be poor in France, but to live well. We grow our own vegetables and I can write all the time. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Until Between Dog and Wolf was published, I couldn’t start on a second novel. It felt wrong, somehow, until I had done the best for the debut. I was working on a collection of short stories. But as soon as I sent the final proof copy in, I felt relief. And another novel started coming in.”

* Between Dog and Wolf (The Lilliput Press) €12.99.

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