For Millennial writers, there has never been a greater expectation to perform to type – and no one has defied it quite like Megan Nolan. Having won widespread acclaim for her “honest and visceral” debut, Acts of Desperation, the pressure to maintain her distinctive first-person voice was high. Ordinary Human Failings instead blends family history with a police procedural and romantic frustration in a narrative focused through multiple characters. But it sustains and nourishes Nolan’s twin preoccupations of speech and shame, ambitiously extending their scope to society at large.
At the novel’s centre are the Greens, a dysfunctional family of Irish immigrants living on a London council estate in 1990. Largely silent John cannot fulfil the role of patriarch, alcoholic son Richie is beyond salvation and daughter Carmel has been weird and reclusive since the birth of her unwanted child, Lucy.
When another child is killed on the Greens’ estate, 10-year-old Lucy is immediately accused and, worse still, she cannot explain herself. It is the perfect scoop for Tom, an ambitious young tabloid journalist who has his boss’s backing to make monsters of the Greens. Freed from their everyday existence when they are evacuated to a hotel at the paper’s expense, they can finally confront the demons of their past and present. It’s a tried and tested way for tabloids to sell papers, after all.
But it’s not so straightforward. The Greens each find their demons but, in their one-on-one interviews with Tom, discover a form of therapy. There are no overnight transformations, but as Tom reaches bathos, the family discover their fate need not be sealed – as each has spent 10 years assuming.
Nolan’s prose is at its best in the characters’ deep reflections on their past in the Irish town of Waterford. The dialogue-driven episodes in London are more strained, zigzagging between the dry and the flowery, much like Nolan’s awkward renditions of tabloid copy. Unlike the Greens, Tom is frustratingly two-dimensional – a promising observation on his “romantic, somewhat filial longing” for his boss is never carried through.
Perhaps Nolan’s narrative of journalistic investigation is as much a device as Tom’s offer of truth and justice. But she succeeds where he fails, perhaps because her offer of voice is as generous as it is genuine. As Tom interviews Lucy’s schoolteacher, he wonders: “Why do they speak?” The answer is at once obvious and elusive: because they are so rarely asked.
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "Ordinary Human Failings".
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