This is the third of Louise O’Neill’s books, and I’ve been a fan since a Clonakilty-based relative pressed the ‘local’ girl’s debut, Only Ever Yours, into my hands a few years ago. It was dystopian and brilliant, a modern Handmaid’s Tale, slightly easier to digest. Her second novel, Asking for It, was by contrast harrowingly realistic. Almost Love is perhaps a little slower or less gripping than the last two, but definitely left a much more lasting impression. Perhaps because I saw myself in it a little, and I think – hope, if only to confirm I’m not alone – you’ll see yourself in it, too.
The expression “writes with a scalpel” is one I often snort at, but I feel like I finally understand its meaning. O’Neill slices right into you, pulls out the least desirable parts of yourself and shows you them on a page without apology or censorship. It’s as unsettling as it is reassuring.
Almost Love pins down, in a way I most recently experienced with Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know, a complex female anti-hero. Unheroic, often nasty behaviour is portrayed from the point of view of the perpetrator who isn’t simply a villain. The behaviour isn’t defended but the emotions surrounding it are described with startling accuracy – the feelings we all get when we know our behaviour isn’t right, like cutting words during a fight or failing to be there for a friend. We aren’t shown a character we particularly like, but one we understand.
The plot itself is fairly simple and carries an innate Irishness. In particular the Irish parent – traditional, stoic, unfailingly supportive but at times a little lost – is as carefully and accurately portrayed as in Asking for It and Walsh’s writing, as well as many of Maeve Binchy’s classics. It is a character I love fiercely, and seeing it done justice feels very special indeed. Irishness also comes across in Sarah’s ambition, that longing for ‘more’ from life, and the confusion that surrounds it.
Almost Love follows Sarah’s journey from (generic Irish countryside) to art college in Dublin, where she is held back by a lack of confidence in her work and self-comparison to prodigies around her. She turns to teaching – a familiar option for many Irish young people – and this leads her to meeting Matthew. They begin seeing each other in secret – something about him being rich and well-known, and the father of a pupil, which at the time all seem valid reasons.
We join Sarah about a year on from the breakup of this affair, which ends frustratingly as it was never a “real” relationship, and the story is told via flashbacks to illustrate the impact it is having on her new relationship and indeed her life.
I found this an interesting and important book, given I am someone who doesn’t often realise or admit the emotional impact things have on my life, and the flashbacks – though at times a little halting and confusing, but then I was reading it at 4am – illustrate that our past can impact our future more than we might think, and for longer. The crushing, dramatic grief that I have always seen as a waste of resources, the questioning of every action during a relationship, and the mild confusion, surprise and discomfort when a new partner treats us with kindness are just a few elements O’Neill shows harshly and openly, and which hit home in an excruciatingly familiar way.
While the book is purportedly about “obsessive love”, I’d like to cut Sarah some slack here because I think what is actually illustrated is how easy it is, through social media and an increasingly connected world, to become an essential part of someone’s life and leave a much larger gap upon exit. We are not solely left on Sarah’s ‘side’, but to question where responsibility lies here.
We are also left questioning the way relationships are changing. Is increasingly casual sex or the non-relationship really liberating us, or forcing us to become comfortable with situations we might otherwise not want? Are we being made to compromise? O’Neill offers no answers to these questions, precisely because there are none. She just poses. Are we blaming the woman for not resisting the advances, or the man for not being more sensitive to the impact of his actions? Is either to blame? Is there a hero, a villain or a misunderstanding? I have certainly met a version of Matthew – who didn’t even have the decency to be rich and successful – and I imagine many of my friends have, too. Portraying such a familiar situation perhaps helps us identify the grey areas O’Neill creates in an era where life itself seems to be becoming more of a grey area.
The main question I took from the story, aside from the main plot, was “who can make art?” On top of Sarah’s issues with her love life there is a much longer-standing one of the anxiety over creating art. Is there any point in creating if others will always be more successful? Is creating a waste of time when you should be earning money instead? Is creating something that should only be done for others, or is painting alone in a shed equally fulfilling and justifiable? And that old cliché, if you can’t do, should you just teach? This inward conflict, particularly for someone from Sarah’s background, is an interesting and painstaking one, and a crucial subplot which I think will be relatable even for those readers who haven’t experienced the kind of “almost love” which makes up the bulk of the story.
For that reason, I would say that while less lively than some, this book is incredibly important. Not the kind of important your English lecturer would say you “simply must” force yourself to read, but the kind of important that will feel effortless and still offer some perspective along the way.
As a postscript, my increasingly woke 62-year-old mother wants to read the book “so I can understand my daughter’s generation and their view on things”. While I am over the moon about this, I now speak directly to Louise O’Neill: would you ever write a version with a bit less penis in it? Thanks a mill.