Harvill Secker, €16.99
How would you cope with a cancer diagnosis? That is the crux of Elaine Feeney’s debut fiction novel. Feeney shows us the situation through the eyes of Sinead Hynes, a young property developer and the recipient of a terminal diagnosis some months prior to the novel’s opening pages, where we meet her in hospital. Sinead keeps her fate — and any inkling of her health issues — hidden from her loved ones.
With the bulk of the tale being told from Sinead’s bed in a hospital ward, it seems an eerily timely story considering the country’s focus on health, healthcare, and death due to Covid-19. Slated for a March publication, readers instead had to wait until late August to be affected by Feeney’s stunning prose and vivid characters. As You Were, like all great things, is worth the wait.
It is a fascinating insight into the lives of very different people who find themselves sharing the same hospital ward. Mothers, matriarchs and the misunderstood find themselves side-by-side with politicians and the powerful in the ward — yet all share the same experiences and slowly reveal their hardships and heartaches.
Fearlessly, Feeney takes a scalpel to the surface of her characters, delving deeper until we learn the roots of their issues, the pains of their pasts.
Big subjects are wrangled into submission within the small space her characters inhabit. Described as a book about women’s stories and women’s struggles, reproductive rights are touched upon frequently: one woman plans her daughter’s trip to England for an abortion while another patient shares a secret same-sex crush which was shattered when the woman she loved was committed to a Magdalene Laundry following an unplanned pregnancy.
Clashing personalities, differing views, and family drama all come to the fore within the walls of an ordinary ward in a struggling hospital. Old Ireland comes face-to-face with her modern counterpart in Feeney’s words, with much of the dialogue between Sinead and her husband occurring via text message. There is text-speak aplenty but, surprisingly, it doesn’t grate as it so often can elsewhere. Feeney’s skill lies in writing text messages that sound realistic. There are no uncomfortable abbreviations so it seems like an interaction any person who uses a mobile phone would have. We switch from reality to Google, over to social media with a break for Spotify. It sounds overwhelming but it is seamlessly executed on the page.
There are breathtaking scenes, moments describing the end of lives that felt all too real in the current climate.
Feeney can be added to the list of writers who best describe Ireland’s unofficial hobby — talking about death. Within the ward it is feared, it is joked about, it is a constant companion.
Feeney is a talented writer with an uncanny ability to evoke empathy and pain within a reader, a talent perhaps honed from her years of poetry writing. Although a debut fiction writer, Feeney is highly regarded as a talented poet, with four poetry collections published since 2007.
Now, however, she is frequently named under ‘debut novelists to watch’ lists, and for good reason. It would be too easy to say her lyrical prose comes from her poetic background but that would be dismissive of her skill at crafting fictional characters that leap off the page.
Where some debut novelists stutter over subtleties, Feeney’s writing confidently bridges the personal and the political. As You Were is a powerfully poignant read which stays in the mind long after turning the last page.