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Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue — book review

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“That’s what it comes down to, I suppose. I was obsessed with what I was, because I had no idea who I was.”

Scenes of a Graphic Nature is a thought-provoking and engrossing novel that is far darker than its brightly coloured cover suggests. After reading and being captivated by Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel, Promising Young Women, I had really high hopes for Scenes of a Graphic Nature.
The first person narration is engrossing and adds a sense of urgency to the story which follows Charlie Regan. Charlie, who is twenty-nine, is deeply unhappy: there is her father’s cancer, her strained relationship with her mother and her more successful best friend, her non-existent ‘career’ in the ever competitive film industry. In an attempt to make some extra cash Charlie has even begun selling photos, of a ‘graphic’ nature, of herself online. Given her not-so-great circumstances, Charlie feels understandably lost.
She finds some comfort in her father, whom she idolise, and his stories, one of which an account of his having survived a terrible tragedy. Inspired by this Charlie, alongside Laura, worked on ‘It Takes A Village’ a film that was based on her father’s story. When the film gains the attention of an Irish film festival, Charlie and Laura are invited to the event. With her father’s encouragement, Charlie set off to Ireland, hoping to find some guidance in the country she regards as her ancestral home. It happens that Charlie and Laura end up in Clipim, an island off the west coast of Ireland, and the place in which her father grew up. The people of Clipim however are not very forthcoming about the past, especially towards outsiders. Charlie however is convinced that someone is hiding the truth about the tragedy that irrevocably shaped her father’s life.

Similarly to Promising Young Women, there is a sense of unease permeating the narrative. From Charlie’s awkward interactions with her mother and best friend, to her sense of disillusionment towards her work and love life. Clipim magnifies the story’s ambivalent atmosphere and O’Donoghue does not shy away from portraying the ramifications of the British occupation of Ireland. Over the course of the novel Charlie, who is quick to emphasise that she is indeed ‘half Irish’, realises that she has mythologised Ireland and her own connection to this country. While I was very much interested in Charlie’s journey, and in the story’s engagement with colonialism, national and self identity, and in her shrewd yet nuanced portrayal of Irish–British relations, the plot tangles itself in unnecessary knots. The latter half of the novel veers into clichéd territories: we have the Town with a Dark Secret™, almost a la The Wicker Man, which is almost entirely populated by physically and verbally ‘hostile’ individuals, There Be Strangers™. Charlie herself makes many stupid choices (which do create tension), and seems unable to read a room. Towards the end the story becomes increasingly disconcerting, which in some ways I was expecting given how hallucinatory Promising Young Women ended up being. Charlie hits rock bottom, some bad shit goes on, and then we get a hurried explanation and ending. The violence of certain characters seems totally brushed aside, which was rather unsatisfying. Also, Charlie’s ‘investigation’ seemed less an investigation that her getting drunk and making wild accusations.
Even as the story become increasingly confusing, and frustrating, I was still absorbed by O’Donoghue’s prose. I liked the way she writes and the themes/ideas she explores. Her main character is an imperfect human being who can be selfish and reckless. Her loneliness and her disillusionment however are rendered in an emphatic light. Certain relationships, such as the one between Charlie and Laura, were believably messy.
Yet, as much as I appreciated certain aspects of the story, part of me knows that the Clipim’s residents were depicted in a less cartoonish way. In spite of Charlie’s interesting inner monologue, the storyline could have maintained a better focus. Still, I would thoroughly recommend this books as O’Donoghue’s writing is incredibly compelling and in spite of her blunders Charlie was an all too realistic main character.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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