Books

Sinéad Stubbins
In My Defence I Have No Defence

Sinéad Stubbins writes paragraphs the way some people write entire short stories. In the space of three or four lines she has sketched out a narrative, led you to believe you know where it’s going, and then, right near the end, turned off in another direction. From there she carries on talking about the bigger idea she’s dissecting as though nothing has happened. It’s remarkable how effortless she makes it seem. An anecdote about watching Jurassic Park morphs into a brief comment on hypocrisy. A description of trying to figure out what a cocktail dress is suddenly becomes a high-stakes reference to Icarus flying too close to the sun. The movie Point Break somehow becomes the perfect analogy for gastrointestinal upset.

In My Defence I Have No Defence is a series of short, loosely connected essays and listicles all working together to explore the feeling that the best version of yourself is just out of reach. Broken into four sections – The Body, The Mind, The Heart and The Soul – Stubbins weaves pop culture, memoir, strange facts and humour around one another in a way that, in less practised hands, could lead to an unintelligible mess. There’s a chapter on the impact of cocaine on eels, another on Irish dancing, and then a list of the best fakes in fiction. It really shouldn’t work, but it does.

Each chapter can easily stand alone as a piece of comedic writing – taken together, however, they paint a humorous yet bittersweet picture of a doomed pursuit of perfection. Stubbins explores, with humour and honesty, how formative TV characters, social media and even the people around her have led her to strive to achieve a nebulous “better self”.

Throughout, she plays with form and structure; some sections are written as straightforward anecdotes, others are more experimental. Whether it is a three-page list of famous characters and their shortcomings, or a longer, more classic memoir, the quality of the writing and engagement remains consistent. Sometimes the chapters feel as if they end rather abruptly, though perhaps that is because they are so immersive.

The greatest strength of Stubbins’ debut, however, is her sharp turn of phrase and clear observational skills. She draws connections between unlikely things, which can both underscore her message and make you laugh out loud.

In My Defence I Have No Defence will do at least three things: it will make you laugh, it will help cement the idea that perfection is a ridiculous goal, and it will make you think about eels in a whole new way.

Elizabeth Flux

Affirm Press, 288pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "In My Defence I Have No Defence, Sinéad Stubbins ".

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Reviewer: Elizabeth Flux