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My Perfect Cousin by Colin O’Sullivan

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Colin O'Sullivan © 13 February 2020.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Speculative Fiction ).

Grass is Greener Syndrome

I live in Japan, and have done so, on and off, for about the last twenty years. I don’t particularly want to be here if truth be told; I don’t even know what drew me here in the first place and I think about absconding all the time (my Shawshank rock-carving tools are ever at the ready).

But I never do leave. The fact of the matter is I probably suffer from “Grass is Greener Syndrome”. When I am in my native Ireland (I return every two years), I often get that same feeling: that I don’t particularly want to be there either. A restlessness overwhelms (or it might just be the over-abundance of rain).

So where exactly do I want to be? Or where should I be?

In both places at the same time? Impossible.

In another place entirely? Hardly.

The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle of all this muddle, and it has been my fiction that has helped me try to understand it.

My first published novel was called Killarney Blues, set in the titular town of my birth. I wrote this novel while living here in Aomori, a city in the north of Japan. As I wrote this book I became immersed in memories of my own beloved town and I enjoyed mentally traversing the roads of my formative years; imagination and memory effortlessly combined to fill me with a complete sense of satisfaction. The novel was a delight to write, and I hope that some of that came across to readers, too.

When trying to think of a follow-up to this novel I hit on the idea of writing a novel called Killarney Jazz, and after that I was going to do another music-themed novel called Killarney Rock. When I told my agent about this “Killarney-plus-Music Genre” idea she said that I should go for it. So I did. I went for it. And I failed miserably. Killarney Jazz was an absolute disaster. It was a novella that was trying to stretch itself into being a novel, or it was like a young girl trying on her mother’s make up for the first time, delighting with what she found in the mirror while the rest of the world cackled at the monstrous mess. My agent suggested I write about Japan, her logic was simple and utterly sound: Well, because you’re there, she said.

I ran with this. My next novel, The Starved Lover Sings, was set in a future Japan and I thoroughly enjoyed the process. The novel was a success, at least in my eyes: I had always dreamed of writing a novel with an existential hero, the prose was daring and often experimental, and with this work I felt I had achieved what I had set out to do.

My third novel, The Dark Manual, was also set in a future Japan, and yet again I enjoyed writing about the country in which I currently live. But I remember coming to the end of that novel and starting to miss thinking and writing about my own country again. So what did I go and do? I went back to writing another Irish set novel: My Perfect Cousin, which was published, like all my others, by Betimes Books, last November. With this novel I went back to the 1980s and had fun reminiscing about a time before the Internet, when the New Romantics still graced the pop charts with their big hair, pouts and shoulder pads, and in a delicious contrast I wrote about the country roads and stone walls of rural Ireland.

From what I have just outlined above I have started to see a strange kind of pattern or way of thinking beginning to emerge. My rather odd modus operandi seems to be this: when I’m living in Ireland, I get utterly sick of it and want to be elsewhere, and when I’m in Japan I want dearly to go home. When I’m writing about Ireland I always come up with a new idea for writing about the Land of the Rising Sun, and when that bores me rigid, I think only of the Emerald Isle. The cycle goes on.

My writing hero (or perhaps my hero full-stop) is Samuel Beckett, who as everyone knows spent most of his artistic life in Paris. When anyone would visit him in his apartment on the Rue de Favorites he would welcome them with open arms (especially if they brought him a bottle of Jameson) and he loved to hear all about what was happening in dear old Dublin. But when he had to actually spend any time in Dublin he could not wait to skedaddle back out of there again. Grass is Greener syndrome, I think Mr. Becket had it in spades.

Is any of this good for me? This sense of restlessness? This discontent at being in any one place at any one time? Well, actually I think it is. It’s very good for me. Recently I have even begun to think of this as lucky. The reason being that I now know two countries pretty well, and therefore can flit comfortably between writing about each. Writing about them also helps me to understand them, as much as it helps me to gain an understanding of myself. Who wouldn’t want that?

So…where to next? Well, typically, I’m flitting again. I am currently writing a screenplay set in Ireland as well as a sequel to The Dark Manual set yet again in a future Japan. I just bounce from one country back to the other in my imagination and thoroughly sate myself while doing so.

At the end of the day it probably doesn’t matter all that much where I physically, actually am. The time that is most valuable to me is the time in that fertile country of the imagination. A country where anything can happen and if I don’t like the circumstances there at any given time – I just change them. That’s probably the only place I ever really want to be. The country that is the imagination. The one true place of contentment. And the grass there, I can assure you, it really is the greenest you’ll ever encounter.

(c) Colin O’Sullivan

About My Perfect Cousin:

Rural Ireland in the late 1980s and, stuck in a rut in a small unnamed village, are sixteen-year-old cousins Laura and Kevin. The close cousins and constant companions ache to abscond to somewhere bigger, better, more exciting, where they are free to do what they want to do, free to become who they really are.

But things are holding them back. As well as having to cope with family tragedies, the troubled, music-obsessed teens must also negotiate the tricky terrain of burgeoning sexuality, the pitfalls of adolescence, and issues of homosexuality that seem, confusingly, to impinge upon them.

And then there is Laura’s own serious affliction, epilepsy, which comes and goes when she least expects it. Only cousin Kevin knows how to handle this tricky situation, or handle her: with gentleness, with sympathy, and with maybe just a little too much in the way of love and affection.

The months and the spiraling family crises serve only to bring them closer together: but how close is too close?

And then there is the strange matter of the nearby pond: this small body of water keeps drawing them near. Laura is convinced that something lurks down there, but Kevin eschews, putting it all down to the psychological trauma she is going through. Are they prepared for whatever secrets might come bubbling to the surface, monsters real or imagined that could come rising from the depths?

Colin O’Sullivan returns to a familiar (and formative) Irish setting with this punchy novel that grows in pace page by page. 1980s references abound, not only with music giants of the time, Boy George, Madonna et al, but also the politics of Gorbachev and Reagan, literal and figurative walls that are about to be torn down and imminent societal changes. Although rooted in the past, this fraught and frantic work is startlingly relevant and makes us consider today’s current affairs.

Order your copy online here.

Colin O’Sullivan’s third novel, The Dark Manual, is due to be made into a TV series by a major American production company.


Colin O’Sullivan lives in the north of Japan and works as an English teacher. His short fiction and poetry have been published in various print and online anthologies and magazines. His first novel, Killarney Blues, has won the prestigious “Prix Mystère de la critique” in France. His second novel, The Starved Lover Sings, has been translated into Russian. His third novel, The Dark Manual, is due to be made into a TV series by a major American production company.