Dark themes abound in young adult novel by Cork author

A Cork-born author’s gritty Young Adult novel tackles themes of suicide, loss, and mental illness, writes Pet O’Connell
Dark themes abound in young adult novel by Cork author

A section of the cover of the new book, Things I Know by Helena Close.

REVIEW: Things I Know, by Helena Close (Little Island €10.99)

“SAOIRSE. It wasn’t your fault. You’ll crack up if you start blaming yourself… You did the same thing when your mam died… blaming the doctors, the chemo’, your dad. Sometimes shit happens and there’s no reason at all.”

Saoirse’s life, however, is so full of the shit that has already happened that her only conclusion is this: “I am a misery guts and I infect anyone close to me.”

It’s a conclusion shared, it must be said, by her sister Eva, who lashes out over Saoirse’s inability to cope with their mother’s death and their father’s decision to uproot the family from their Limerick home with its happy memories, relocating to rural Co Clare.

“Do you ever, like, stop looking for notice? It’s always about you - Mam dying was all about you, same with moving here - you again, why can’t you just f***ing be normal?” Eva rages.

While struggling to come to terms with the loss of her mother, Saoirse is plunged into fresh grief over the suicide of the boyfriend with whom she has just split up. Again, Eva points the finger of blame in her sister’s direction.

“Why didn’t you answer him? He called you the night before, and the day he… the day he died. What kind of cold-hearted bitch are you?”

When Saoirse’s panic attacks lead to very public blackouts, what Eva sees is an attention-seeker who is ruining her sister’s ability to fit into the narrow social parameters of small-town Ireland.

“You love being miserable and you love making everyone around you miserable too,” she says.

Indeed, however much the reader sympathises with Saoirse’s troubles, willing her to engage with her therapist and hoping any one of her friends or would-be lovers can help her through her pain, it is hard to warm to this dark, self- destructive central character.

She’s not short on potential sources of help, either. Her father, while trying to process his own grief, does his best to support her, as does her Nan, with pithy wisdom that cuts straight to the heart of the matter.

The gorgeous potential boyfriend, understanding boss, and colourful best friend Jade all reach out to support Saoirse, as does the inept counsellor who cuts no ice with the perceptive Saoirse.

With crisis upon crisis unfolding in the weeks surrounding her Leaving Certificate exams, Saoirse’s anxiety spirals out of control and, as she loses her grip on reality, she teeters on the edge of mental breakdown.

She’s not the only one in turmoil in this raw Young Adult novel, where the ripple effects of suicide touch each of her peers and the risk of copycat deaths is painfully real, unlike the Instagram fiction the teenagers show to the world.

Though there are shards of light, this is a challenging but rewarding read full of gritty realism.

Born in Cork, author Helena Close moved to Limerick aged five and to the wilds of West Clare in recent years. Though she nails small-town claustrophobia in her portrayal of the challenges faced by Saoirse and her siblings, as blow-ins struggling to readjust to new social groups, Limerick is where the heart of this story is linguistically and emotionally, the city’s home-grown singer-songwriter Emma Langford even getting a shout-out.

As Saoirse attempts to pin down what she knows for certain in a maelstrom of her own and everyone else’s emotions, what the reader knows at the end of this turbulent ride is that Close is a masterful writer, unafraid of laying bare ugly truths about teenage suicide and mental illness.

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