As You Were 
by Elaine Feeney.
Harvill Secker, 392 pp., £14.99, August 2020, 978 1 78730 163 4
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Do​ the Irish have a unique way of handling death? I don’t know, but I can tell you how my family does it. We circle through dark humour, pass around food and drink, pivot to banalities, current affairs and local gossip. (‘Hasn’t your one done well for herself?’ ‘Isn’t himself in an awful way?’) Elaine Feeney’s first novel combines all of these elements, right down to the Kimberley biscuits popular at Irish wakes: a chewy ginger treat with marshmallow in the centre and sprinkled with sugar, available in the ‘Irish section’ of large British supermarkets.

As You Were is about Sinéad Hynes, a Galwegian property developer (‘always a terrific dose, but buyer beware’) who is terminally ill. For eight months she hides her prognosis from her husband, Alex, and their children. She tells nobody except ‘a fat magpie’, a habit of secrecy formed during childhood; she spent years keeping bad news from an abusive father whose rancour still rings in her ears. Eventually, she collapses and an ambulance brings Sinéad to the ominously capitalised Ward in the ominously capitalised Hospital. She’s on familiar turf: she was born there and it’s where she delivered her three sons with fairy-tale dispatch. It was also the site of many unpleasant physical examinations: her bowels, her ovarian cyst. Nine years before the novel begins, she gave birth to a fourth child at the Hospital, a daughter with no heartbeat – a subject the family never broaches. ‘Father would say, It is no use in the wide earthly world crying alone in a darkened room for yourself.’ How then can you grieve at all?

Sinéad spends the novel finding out. The book is divided between her time spent on the Ward and flashbacks: trips away, bereavement, childhood, her family life. We read about the days, which then became months, during which she put off telling the compliant Alex (‘He loved normal’) about her cancer. She wishes her body would display some sign of its condition so she wouldn’t have to articulate that she’s dying. Ireland is ill-equipped for difficult conversations. A life depleting in front of you is taboo, though the broader macabre is fine: ‘Dentists are most peculiar. Ya knows they say they kill themselves a lot? High rates of suicide. Rally? Dentists. No way.’

As her new acquaintances in Hospital fill the pages with dialogue, Sinéad retreats from view (much like Faye, the protagonist of Rachel Cusk’s autofictional trilogy). Characters who would normally be on the fringes of a narrative step into the spotlight. Michal Piwaski, a Polish care assistant, disarms us with his lack of social grace: ‘In maternity they’d steal anything, yuss? It gets way more crazy up there. The hormones … turning them into mad stealers.’ There’s Molly Zane, an Australian nurse with a ‘marvellously uncivil swagger’ whose self-assurance marks her as an outsider in the west of Ireland. Then there are Sinéad’s fellow patients. There’s ‘Shane-no-one-caught-a-surname’, with all the charisma that moniker suggests (though to be fair he’s mostly unconscious); Patrick Hegarty and his bossy daughter Claire, a keen reader of the Irish Independent; Margaret Rose Sherlock, her Hello! magazine and rosary beads close at hand, visited by everyone except her wayward husband; and Jane Lohan, who has no visitors at all, though she comes from a large family. The patients on the Ward have no privacy, for ‘the engineering of the human body is not, sadly, inclined to modesty during illness’. Sinéad might be running from her own body, but she can’t avoid everyone else’s.

Surrounded by laid-back larger than life types, Sinéad is defensive and ironic, but in a way that seems matter of fact rather than bitter or hostile. She mentions her husband’s ‘I-don’t-even-know-who-you-are-any-more exasperation’ not as a barb, but as shorthand. Perhaps inevitably, given that internet culture is fast and publishing is slow, some of Feeney’s observational humour fails to land a punch. Google searches for ‘how to pronounce quinoa’ or ‘how to get the thigh gap’ aren’t zeitgeist-skewering. But these dreary touchstones capture something of Sinéad’s despair at the limitations of her own shallow coping mechanisms.

At first she wants nothing to do with Shane-no-one-caught-a-surname. ‘I was sick of the brutality of his feeds, the repulsing falseness of it, the laptop on constant charge and the way he’d look at it all day with one eye open, drooling.’ But as Sinéad adjusts to Ward life, her preciousness gives way to a glorious unsentimentality about bodies. There’s lots of blood and piss, colons and arse cheeks. ‘I would never wank in here,’ Sinéad tells us. (When, in Irish fiction, has ‘wanking’ ever described a woman masturbating rather than a man?) Here’s Jane on her breasts: ‘I just haven’t a bit of comfort, with these two sitting down on me all day.’ Sinéad lends her a bra: ‘It was encrusted with pink star diamantés across the cups. “Babe” times two. It was a hideous thing, really, with empty hooks for the missing straps.’ But underwear, for these women, is functional: ‘Great success,’ Jane says putting the bra on, even as it causes her stomach to fold down ‘like a deflated wasp nest’. Whatever. It’s just skin.

A creeping moralism about food hovers over all this talk of flesh. Sinéad’s ‘clean eating’ dogma derives from self-disgust. ‘It was disgraceful to have eaten such a large bar of chocolate just moments before I knew my child was dead,’ she says of the Turkish Delight she was digesting during a pre-natal scan for her fourth pregnancy. ‘What if I didn’t eat sugar for a year?’ she wonders; would that slow down the progression of her cancer? She imagines telling her family about the illness: ‘Would they aggressively Google every known drug and cure and procedure and American oncologist and yogi and kefir grains and spinach plants and reiki and mindfulness and everything they could to save her? I bet they would. But she’d die anyway.’

As a child, Sinéad preferred her own company, and the company-not-company of books: Maeve Binchy, Catherine Cookson, Oscar Wilde and more daring authors, such as Edna O’Brien, who were on her father’s ‘forbidden list’. She lost her taste for reading as an adult because she ‘couldn’t concentrate on other people’s stories’, but she scrutinises her fellow patients on the Ward with precision. Instead of using interlocutors to show us the narrator in ‘outline’, as Cusk does in her trilogy, the dialogue in As You Were obscures or deflects from Sinéad. Despite Faye’s relative silence we get to know her as a negative space, the air between other people, while for Sinéad transcribing others only allows her to hide – but between the ward scenes Sinéad processes what has happened to her, and readers alone are privy to that journey.

The story is driven by the relationships between Sinéad, Margaret Rose and Jane. Alex (‘the handsome man who smiled at me and kept coming back for more’) and Sinéad’s children are only vaguely characterised in comparison to the Ward’s inhabitants. We come to see that this serves a purpose: Sinéad has put her family out of mind and she can’t imagine what would happen if she told them the reason for her collapse. The three women, though, are full of life. They support one another, breaking long-held silences about marriage, loss, abortion, dementia, sapphic heartbreak and church and state repression. O’Brien’s Country Girls courses through Feeney’s women, though As You Were is set seventy years or so later, just before Ireland legalised abortion in 2018. One character in Feeney’s novel arranges the procedure in Birmingham, in line with the earlier fate of émigrés who got ‘in trouble’ in America: ‘For better or worse, girls stayed out abroad, for if it maimed them, it could mind them.’

Feeney balances this material against evasion and omission – the John McGahern and Anne Enright school of hiding trauma in narrative cracks. As You Were is haunted by the abuses of women in recent Irish history. Between 1925 and 1961 a maternity home for unmarried mothers and their children operated in Tuam, a large town in Galway, the county in which the novel is set. In 2014 the historian Catherine Corless published her research into the high child mortality rates at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home (known as ‘The Home’). Three years later a government commission confirmed what Galwegians already suspected and survivors had been insisting for years: almost eight hundred children at the home had died of malnutrition and neglect, and were buried in an unmarked grave that was widely reported to be located in a septic tank. The characters in Feeney’s novel need little convincing of the nuns’ neglect: ‘Sure, there’s hundreds buried everywhere, thrown into bogs and over walls, some say they’re in that awful tank … sure, what do you even say?’ A Twitter account, @BabiesTuam, still tweets their names: Martin Francis Bane, 3 months; Mary Margaret Jordan, 18 months; John Joseph Mills, 5 months. Feeney herself is creative director of the Tuam Oral History Project, an archive of survivor testimonies.

This history echoes throughout As You Were. We hear of one pregnant woman about to be sent to Tuam in the early 1950s. When she declines her chauffeur’s advances, she’s told that if she isn’t ‘up for anything’ then he ‘won’t shame his car and drive her to the gate of the Home’. He dumps her on the side of the road. Misogyny taints the medical approach to women’s bodies and fuels the secrecy, condescension and invasive prodding on the Ward. ‘Did I tell you that they told me if I didn’t take the tablets I couldn’t be around my children?’ a character says.

Although it is told in the third person, the story is filtered through Sinéad’s consciousness. Much of the speech is written phonetically, with Sinéad’s bourgeois ear most conspicuous in the dialogue of Margaret Rose and her working-class family, rendered entirely in eye dialect (‘Ja rally nade ta come back now’). If the evils of the last century have shaped these characters’ lives, then so too has the neoliberalism of more recent decades. Sinéad’s buy-buy-buy compulsion thinly veils her awareness that capitalism, like every preceding Irish orthodoxy, holds individuals responsible for structural decay: ‘We are all so convinced by each machine that replaces the last that all lost ambition is to do with the self.’ Hegs riffs on the wheeler-dealing archetype known in Ireland as a ‘gombeen man’. Hegs was a Fianna Fáiler before the recession – the party is never named, but is identified as having ‘destroyed itself and the country’s finances during the hedonistic (for some) Celtic Tiger’ – and he’s not about to change tack now:

It’s not the done thing, he explained, just to party hop because the country was up shit creek, sure he hadn’t even been to the Galway Races, don’t mind ever indulged in a bottle of champagne or even a helicopter ride, and he had most definitely never received a brown envelope of any kind, but he had an allegiance to the party, because it was a tradition among his people, and he was a popular choice in the local council elections, out west, past Galway city towards Connemara, further than Beyond Barna and just shy of Ellis Island. And what was I looking for? Surely not gender quotas.

Sinéad was also caught up in the wild consumerism of those years. Her childhood affection for nature contrasts with her adult desire to build over the earth ‘until you could no longer see it, forgetting it ever existed’. She chose to become a property developer to spare her children ‘the awfulness of not having The Things … But this was bullshit and in the end, my business was really an addiction.’ British and American critics tend to apply borderless generational analysis to new Irish writing (‘post-crash fiction’, ‘millennial fiction’ and so forth) but Feeney’s novel is sensitive to the difference between the modern Irish economic trajectory and that of other Anglophone countries. We had no baby boom, no postwar consensus; we were poor by European standards until the mid-1990s. The Celtic Tiger was a brief fever dream, preceded in this novel by the ‘American wake’ of mass youth emigration and succeeded – well, by death.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Life on the Ward displays the boldness of Feeney’s humour. Hegs ‘popped into the local funeral home just as the remains were about to be brought to the church – sure, otherwise he’d spend his whole life in a queue.’ But there’s more than just comic relief here. Sinéad’s indiscriminately emojied Irish-mammy-style texting reveals her emotional state – she finds it easier to type a message to her husband than to talk to him. Sinéad’s keyboard-tapping betrays her in the way someone else’s facial gestures might: ‘Feel like I’m gonna die (Automatic coffin suggestion. Deleted coffin – fuck – fuck suggestions).’

Feeney​ has published three collections of poetry and there’s something lyrical in As You Were’s pin-sharp descriptions. Air comes in ‘suddenly as a bonesetter’s triumph’; in a heady moment, the skin on her stomach is ‘like bodhrán goat-skin, stretched and pulled tight around its wooden frame, then nailed’. There are statements that might strike the reader as clichéd (‘The windows banged perhaps to protest loss’) or trite (‘wisps of light danced’). But, more often, sensory descriptions are skilfully linked to Sinéad’s interior life:

The seas remember to come in and out. The waves are solar-powered. They stay going even in the dark of night. They’ll take deck chairs and towels and rubber shoes, tennis rackets, buckets and spades, beach balls and picnic tables, tins and rollies, plastic coffee cups and nappies. They’ll gobble seaweed and leave it back. They’ll lunge at jellyfish. They’ll take your coastline. Your breath. The sea comes in hungry and can take your son and daughter under, caressing them, swallow them whole.

Feeney has a remarkable ability to move between registers. On Monday morning rounds, a group of student nurses equipped with orange energy drinks and suffering from the previous night’s exploits take over the narration in the staccato of young adult fiction (‘Legend night. But OMG that taxi driver. Creepy.’) A few paragraphs later, we’re with Margaret Rose and Jane, on the hunt for a miracle cure for the fast-declining Shane. They consider ‘a drop of blessed oil of St Thérèse of Lisieux or even a lock of St Francis of Assisi’s hair, even a hair from one of his pets’ – but settle on a mitten that belonged to Padre Pio. Margaret Rose arranges for it to be sent to the Hospital in the care of a ‘trusted bus driver’: ‘With the help of good God and all of his many archangels, especially the favourite one, Michael, or so they thought, although they were unsure as to which archangel was the favourite, the glove would get here, safely, off the Navan bus.’ There’s a bit of everything in this novel, from poetic naturescapes to unadorned pages of dialogue, from excoriations of the Irish government to a ‘must bring’ wishlist right out of Vogue (if Edward Enninful’s readership consisted of terminal patients). Feeney’s selective use of a sans serif typeface (often the gimmicky sign of a novelist’s awkwardness in handling the world of social media) here aligns perfectly with the narrative collage.

‘I can share my life story with a woman on a train journey but I can’t repeat it to my mother,’ Sinéad tells us. We’re that stranger, joining the fat magpie in our protagonist’s confidence. Then there’s the Ward itself, where three women help one another to talk about their pasts, their impossible nows and dwindling futures. From the history of Irish institutions, we have inherited a ‘tight rein on language we use for events that go on inside the body, especially inside your uterus’. As You Were takes the reins, exercising an elastic grip, shortening and lengthening, tautening and loosening and, finally, letting go. Something else I learned from the novel: chocolate Mikado sticks are more easily digestible than Kimberley biscuits.

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