It’s 2012, and a directionless young girl falls head over heels in love with a troubled boy. If this feels like a familiar set up to me, surely it’s my own fault for gravitating to the same millennial relationship stories of woe. But here we are; directionless young girl – unnamed – is our narrator, and she meets Ciaran, Irish-Danish heartthrob at an art gallery in Dublin.
‘Love was the great consolation, would set ablaze the fields of my life in one go, leaving nothing behind.’
She’s been living a life that seems hedonistic – relentless partying, excessive drinking, irresponsible sex – but we never quite believe that it is very much fun. Ciaran disapproves of her drinking, dislikes her friends, and in her desperation to make him the only planet around which she orbits, she tries to change for him. She hinges all of her self worth on his validation, obsessed with his attention despite his aloof, emotionally manipulative behaviour. This is a dark and highly toxic domestic set-up from the start – it’s hard to imagine that these two could ever be happy.
‘Some part of me had already decided to live for him and let him take over the great weight of myself.’
Nolan examines the way in which sexuality can be used as a currency, particularly for young women who are otherwise disenfranchised – our narrator is a university drop-out working dead-end admin jobs. ‘Being young and beautiful felt like a lot sometimes,’ she muses, ‘felt like it translated to real-world power,’. ‘But,’ she continues, ‘money shat all over it every time.’
She’s a character who is simultaneously indulging in all of her ‘excesses’ – the drink, the partying, the sex – and yet desperately fighting to contain them, the ‘reservoirs of need that existed in me and would never stop spilling out, ruining all they touched’. In a world where she has so little power, she self-harms and restricts her eating to punish herself and others. Ciaran is devastatingly oblivious – or perhaps he just doesn’t care.
It’s a relentlessly claustrophobic existence, where almost nothing happens outside of the confines of the relationship – hardly any friends, limited contact with family, even details as mundane as the weather are almost never disclosed. It’s excruciating at times, the intensity with which she pours herself into Ciaran and grapples with her identity, worth, and inner contradictions.
When their relationship begins to crumble, she remarks that ‘Every moment of my day was saturated by his absence, each second made damp and collapsing and airless beneath it.’ And that’s not an inaccurate description of what it’s like to read this book. It’s not easy to read, but equally hard to look away.
CW: sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders