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Snowflake by Louise Nealon

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Literary Fiction

By Angela Connaughton

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Snowflake is the brilliant first novel by Irish writer Louise Nealon, published in 2021 by Manilla Press.

The novel’s central character, Debbie White, is an 18-year-old, highly intelligent, country girl whose prowess at English Literature has earned her a coveted place at Trinity College.

Transitioning from a modest farming background to Ireland’s highest-ranked college, with its 18,000 or so student capacity, and with the likes of Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and President Mary Robinson among its alumni, is daunting enough and has been well documented; but transitioning from a background where mental instability, alcoholism and related burdens abound, is an inestimable challenge.

Debbie has grown up with her single-parent mother, Maeve, who we first meet as she dances naked in their nettle-overrun garden, hoping that the serotonin from the stings will generate a happy mood. Maeve’s mental illness manifests itself in staggering combinations of dysfunction, affection and, sometimes, utter cruelty. Her keen aptitude for poetry and writing has been inherited by her daughter as has her propensity for anxiety, depression and prophetic dreams.

Debbie’s uncle Billy, the very well-read, erudite, alcohol-dependent and improbable positive driving force in Debbie’s life, inhabits the caravan in the garden; from where he and Debbie share their love of literature, farming, the full moon and the stars. Billy is that one crucial person who constantly pushes Debbie towards her best self, despite – or, possibly, because of – being tortured by his own demons.

This clever, moving and humorous novel is as much an enlightening examination of mental illness as it is a coming-of-age novel. It is as much about the Kildare farm as it is about Trinity College and, by putting equal focus on the activities at home on the farm, the author succeeds in dismantling the grandeur and romanticism often associated with attending Trinity; like ‘a reverse Shawshank Redemption situation, where you had to bribe Morgan Freemen with cigarettes and tunnel your way in’.

Despite the obstacles to successful integration into life at Trinity for a girl who is more at home milking cows and having a pint in the local than she is with yoga and hummus from Tesco, Debbie is open, honest and unrestricted about her background with the people she meets. As friendships develop, she is surprised to discover that affluence and privilege are not safeguards against anxiety and depression.  She finds this revelation from her ‘posh’ new friend particularly difficult to comprehend ‘because she is a lot less miserable than me. Or she certainly ought to be’.

The author tracks Debbie’s path with extraordinary acuity. Her exploration of the anxieties and mood disorders that besiege Debbie demonstrates an in-depth understanding of such illnesses and the typical Irish response to poor mental health, i.e., if you say nothing about it, it will go away.  Debbie has grown up in an Ireland where it is socially acceptable to be an alcoholic, as long as you don’t seek treatment for it.  But an Ireland, too, where there is a growing awareness of mental health issues and a stronger will, led largely by the so-called ‘snowflake’ generation, to unshackle themselves of the stigma surrounding such issues and seek help.

Nealon brings a composed, candid and realistic approach to the exposure and treatment of mental illness in all its guises and, especially, among young adults.  She unlocks the constraints of stigma, shame and denial that have been synonymous with this area of healthcare in Ireland for so long and insists that it is acknowledged and tackled, as it should be.

The lack of resilience and sense of entitlement that define the term ‘snowflake’, as we’ve come to know it, are not attributable to Nealon’s protagonist Debbie White.  Rather than having it easier, she carries the legacy of the previous generation with an admirable, albeit flawed, strength of character. Much like nature’s snowflake, she is multi-dimensional, fragile, beautiful and unique.

There is much to learn, for all ages, from this excellent, raw, honest, commanding novel.

(c) Angela Connaughton

Order your copy online here.

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