As You Were is the debut fiction novel by accomplished poet, Elaine Feeney.
This is a brilliantly written, evocative and unexpectedly rewarding read. Tragic and funny in almost equal measure, the story is centred, curiously, around a group of very ill patients in a West of Ireland hospital ward, one of whom is Sinéad Hynes, the main protagonist. The ward itself screams bleakness and severe under-funding, where patients, male and female, appear to be languishing rather than recuperating, and where they develop an unlikely camaraderie.
Sinéad is a 30-something high-flier in the world of property valuation and management. Married to Alex with three sons, she is keeping a diagnosis of terminal cancer a secret from everyone, including her husband, children and mother. Everyone, that is, except for the “one for sorrow” magpie she met immediately following her diagnosis – eight months previously – and, Google. I have to admit that this revelation, which comes early on in the book, threatened to instantly disconnect me from Sinéad, but then I removed my judgemental hat and read on.
Sinéad’s story is compelling and very different. Not an immediately likeable character, her interactions with her bed-fellows and reminiscences about her childhood and later life with Alex, “a real good man”, shape an image, initially, of a strong, successful career woman (the main earner, even!); a product of a ‘new’ Ireland, full of opportunity, equality and emojis. But, she’s a product, too, of an old patriarchal Ireland, where mindless, cruel abuse and ridicule, of herself and her mother, at the hands of her father, have left indelible psychological bruises, and an enduring belief that she is unworthy. The casually vicious voice of her father interrupts her thoughts at regular, unbidden intervals, and serves as a constant reminder of her perceived uselessness.
Sinéad’s high threshold for physical pain is matched by an equally high resistance to expressing emotional pain. Her methods are often self-destructive and she possesses traits that are more often attributed to male characters. There is something oddly refreshing about this latter ploy and, like her or not, the cleverness of the writing makes you set judgement aside and empathise with, or, at least, try to understand her.
Alongside Sinéad’s story we meet a number of other characters, some of whom are almost, if not entirely as memorable as the central character.
Margaret Rose is superbly drawn as the matriarchal figure in a traveller family who, despite suffering a serious stroke, remains the driving force of her family. She directs all manner of chaos from her rose-gold covered mobile phone, while investigating the disappearance of her errant husband and offering valuable pearls of wisdom and support to her newfound friends on the ward.
Jane is an ex-teacher who is suffering from Dementia and who, in occasional bouts of blunt lucidity, recounts a life of intense tragedy. Tied by marriage to the wrong person, in every sense of the word, the brutal loss of the love of her life haunts her persistently. Jane’s story incorporates Ireland’s desolate history of subjugating women; the horrors of the mother and baby homes and the impact of pervasive stigma and shame. Her less reasoned outbursts represent a heart-breaking portrayal of the horribly cruel disease that has befallen her.
Others on the ward include Patrick Hegarty (Hegs), also suffering from cancer, whose daughter spends most of her time by his bedside but does not appreciate the interactions between him and his new buddies; and Shane, a taciturn paraplegic young man who, as is later revealed, is a lot more observant of those around him than he lets on.
Molly, the Australian Nurse, and Michal, the Polish assistant, also bring their vibrant personalities and family stories to the ward on a daily basis as they valiantly try to alleviate their patients’ dismal circumstances and the depressing shortcomings of the hospital itself.
The genius of this book is in the author’s ability to observe and narrate detail that you would only expect to be well captured by personal experience; her ability to weave historical perspective into the stories of several vastly different individuals, whose only common denominator is the space they’re forced to share; her brilliant grasp on accents and colloquial speech; her sharp, sometimes sardonic, always hilarious wit, and her skill at making you embrace the chaotic sadness and care deeply about how all their stories end. This is a must-read!
(c) Angela Connaughton
Order your copy online here.