“WHAT HAPPENS in the heart simply happens.” So writes Ted Hughes in his collection Birthday Letters, a series of poems addressed to his late wife Sylvia Plath. Of course, Hughes’s use of “simple” here is misleading — the relationship between the two poets was famously volatile. Belinda McKeon’s second novel, Tender, which features Hughes’s line, also devotes itself to a volatile relationship. And though Hughes seems to insist that matters of the heart “simply happen” — that is, they occur far beyond any logic or control — McKeon reminds us that these matters are never, in fact, simple in the slightest.
The protagonist of Tender is a young woman named Catherine Reilly, who has left the parochial confines of County Longford to study English and art history at Trinity College, Dublin. Up in the capital, she rents a room in a flat with two girls. The room was formerly occupied by the girls’ school friend, James, who has since moved to Berlin to work as a photographer’s assistant. However, James is now back from Germany, and Catherine is intrigued to finally encounter the enigmatic character about whom she has heard so much:
That was another thing Amy and Lorraine had said about him: that he talked. Talked and talked; there was nobody else like him for that, Amy had said, meaning it as a good thing, and Catherine had found herself quite looking forward to meeting him, then, this talkative James. To see what that looked like: a boy who could talk.
This anticipation is infectious, building in the reader as well as in Catherine, while another, darker emotion also mounts. Catherine admits to a certain sense of anxiety: she is “[w]ary not so much of him, but of herself — how would she handle this? What account would she give of herself? What would he think of her, when she was forced to actually talk to him?” This wariness, of course, is entirely justified.
The pair seem to hit it off right from the start. As expected, there is a lot of talking — much like Hughes in Birthday Letters, McKeon explores love through its relationship to language. Catherine and James form an instant intimacy that is rooted in banter and quotations and codes of speech: “Already they had their own way of talking, their private phrases, their language.” Catherine is both delighted and confused by this intimacy, struggling to understand what exactly is blooming between them, but James puts any romantic intentions to rest when he tells her that he is gay. This revelation brings relief, as well as a complex range of other emotions, from “inadequacy” and “childishness,” to “gratitude,” “gladness,” and even “pride.” Matters of the heart may just happen, but once again, they are far from simple.
With the terms of their relationship clarified, the pair’s friendship blossoms, particularly in the linguistic realm. While James is back in Germany, they write letters almost every day. When he returns, James serves as an interlocutor through which Catherine can articulate her impressions of the world around her. She even frames her inner thoughts and perceptions just as she would their correspondence: “it was James she was addressing,” she realizes. “James to whom she was writing an imaginary, long juicy letter.”
McKeon’s ability to capture the intricacies of this relationship is startling. She carefully portrays every nuance of their platonic but “rich, layered affection.” The power dynamic shifts back and forth, but the sheer energy of the bond never wavers: Catherine’s life is now a “teeming, booming, multiplying thing.” Eventually, however, the intensity starts to become too much, laced more and more with traces of obsession and deceit. Even Catherine struggles to find the right words — the right talk to articulate exactly how their bond is spiralling out of control:
[W]hat was this? What was this feeling? What were these feelings, because there was more than one of them: there were several of them, and it was by them, now, that she was crowded; it was by them, now, that she was feeling cornered, feeling overwhelmed.
She begins to experience a kind of “madness” as the pair careers toward very dangerous emotional territory.
McKeon first emerged as a significant talent in 2011 when her debut novel, Solace, was published to a host of awards. The protagonist that time around was Mark Casey, who also leaves the confines of parochial Longford behind to pursue his studies in Trinity College, Dublin. Here, Mark negotiates the tension between tradition and progress, between staying loyal to his rural family and engaging with his urban academic life, as signs of a changing Ireland unfold all around him. In Tender, Catherine undergoes a similar coming of age and experiences a similar tension between the familiar and the new.
The specific context of Catherine’s story is all the more pertinent given that James comes out only four years after the decriminalization of homosexuality in Ireland. Even then, Catherine admits to never having actually met someone who is openly gay: “Nobody real. Nobody Irish, really other than David Norris, the senator who had fought for the law to be changed, and it was not as if Catherine actually knew him.” So she admits to the “novelty” of the fact and the sense of being a “tourist” in James’s presence, yet another emotion to add to the list. That said, she isn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that, legal or otherwise, James’s news still presents great difficulty. Despite his family being, in Catherine’s eyes, very “modern,” they react poorly to his coming out, while her own parents try to forbid her from cavorting with such company. It is significant that it wasn’t until 2015, the year Tender was published in Ireland, that same-sex marriage was finally legalized there, revealing the ongoing challenges inherent in being gay in a predominantly Catholic country.
Despite its portrait of coming of age in a changing Ireland and its juxtaposition of urban and rural life, Tender is in fact a very different book from its predecessor. Solace was a beautiful, delicate novel in which much was left unsaid. Mark and his father only communicated in “an established rhythm” where “[t]here were set subjects, set questions, set responses; a set way to move your head, to shrug your shoulders, to turn slowly towards the door and keep an eye on whoever was coming in.” Outside of this routine, “[t]here were things that seemed unsayable; things that seemed impossible to push over the surface of thought.” Indeed, so much of the novel’s power lay in the charged silence which permeated every page. In many ways, this felt like the continuation of a certain Irish literary tradition — a more “established rhythm,” to put it in McKeon’s terms. In the last 50 years, Ireland has produced a long list of novelists who are masters of stillness and restraint, from John McGahern to Sebastian Barry to McKeon’s own mentor, the wonderful Colm Tóibín.
Tender, however, is a much louder novel, allowing us to be almost entirely privy to the unsayable. For one, James’s bluntness captivates Catherine from the start, as she marvels at “[t]he directness. The openness” of his personality: “He was saying aloud the stuff that, Catherine now realized, she had always thought you were meant to keep silent.” Even beyond what is said aloud, we spend the majority of the novel deep inside Catherine’s head, where her emotions and neuroses breed and multiply. Just as she “actually squirmed, listening to [James],” so we become increasingly uncomfortable in the presence of her manic energy, her insecurities, her melodramatic trains of thought. Even though Catherine does her best to present a calm and collected outward persona, inwardly her obsession is taking over, as we witness the full extent of her troubled and twisted mind.
This tension between the outward and inward versions of the self is also explored in James’s photography. Early on, he admires the mug shot photographs on the Trinity students’ ID cards, praising “[t]he way people are caught in them. Before they have a chance to arrange their expressions the way people always want to when you photograph them.” This “truthful” appearance is something he later strives to capture in his own work, creating images which are “stark and strange and disorientating […] people being caught in their unguarded moments, accessed in the pureness and vulnerability of who they really were.” These portraits resonate with McKeon’s portrait of Catherine, which may not be particularly flattering, but is certainly unflinching in its attempt to capture the “pureness and vulnerability” of her character.
This attempt not only challenges the boundaries of how deeply a reader may be invited to immerse themselves in a character’s head, but it also pushes formal boundaries. The novel’s third section, ironically titled “ROMANCE,” is composed of a series of brief and breathless one-line paragraphs, a textual reenactment of Catherine’s frantic headspace. These paragraphs range from depressed truisms — “Nothing that was not him was anything that she could see” — to unanswered questions — “what, though, was actually wrong with her?” Elsewhere they embed themselves in parentheses, adding another layer of consciousness to the cacophony inside Catherine’s head: “(She could not work out anything about how things were meant to be.)” We also find extracts from the corny horoscopes Catherine writes as part of her summer job, as well as a number of lines of Hughes’s poetry: “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.”
These poems hail from the aforementioned Birthday Letters, which James buys for Catherine early on in the novel to help her write an essay about Plath. The epistolary form of Hughes’s book also recalls the letters which James and Catherine exchange — both of the real and the imagined variety. Furthermore, while Hughes’s writing is variously described by McKeon’s characters as “melodramatic,” “insane,” and “intense,” so too is McKeon’s own writing, particularly in the “ROMANCE” section. The text itself is unabashed in the discomfort it causes, as we watch Catherine’s anxiety manically escalate.
This inclusion of a particularly resonant literary figure is a trope McKeon has used before. In Solace, Mark is writing a PhD dissertation on the 19th-century author Maria Edgeworth, whose Longford home was mere moments from his own. Edgeworth’s dedication to education, as well as her interest in the tension between the local and the cosmopolitan, echo the novel’s broader themes, even if Mark cannot seem to figure out what critical angle he plans to take. What he does seem sure of is that he wants to research Edgeworth’s “self-reflexivity and autobiographical interpolation, and about how she used these things to play with what people expected fiction to be.”
This idea of “self-reflexivity and autobiographical interpolation” is crucial in both of McKeon’s novels. Not only does she draw on the works and lives of canonic literary figures, but she also draws on her own life. Catherine’s journey from Longford to Trinity; her journalism work at Trinity News; her interviews with authors and increasing involvement in the Dublin literary scene are all taken directly from McKeon’s experience. Indeed, in a recent interview McKeon termed the novel “autobiographical at its core.” And yet, she insists she is not interested in any explicit linking of her life and that of her characters. Fiction isn’t so straightforward. “There are different layers of the autobiographical and the imagined,” she says. “The boundary between what really happens in a life and what you imagine is much more fluid than I used to think — and I’ve become much more interested in writing which explores that.” It is no wonder that Catherine tells us she wants to write her Hughes essay about something to do with “autobiography, and how it never showed itself in the work in the lazy way that readers expected it to.”
McKeon obviously has fun with this blurring of fiction and reality, not least since Catherine — not Belinda — is in fact McKeon’s own given name. And yet, even in the novel this has different layers of its own. Catherine is alternately known as “Reilly,” “Citóg,” “Poetess,” and “Muriel”; she routinely switches between personas, depending on the person she is with. Once she even thinks of doing something, only to remember “she was not that version of herself.” But we, the reader, are privy to all of the versions — the real and the imagined, the internal and the external. McKeon paints a rich and painfully honest portrait, so bursting with life and intelligence that it reverberates in the mind long after the novel has come to a heartbreaking end.
Ruth Gilligan is a bestselling novelist and journalist from Ireland, now living in the UK. Her fourth novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, is based on the history of the Jewish community in Ireland, and was published by Atlantic Books in July 2016.