Nuala Ní Chonchúir is a full-time fiction writer and poet, living in Galway county, Ireland. She has published two collections of short fiction and two poetry collections, and has worked as an arts administrator in theatre and in a writers' centre, as a translator, as a bookseller and also in a university library. Nuala teaches creative writing on a part-time basis, and blogs at Women Rule Writer.
My debut novel You, which has just been published by New Island, is told from the POV of a ten-year-old girl. It is 30 years since I was a ten-year-old but, writing in my character’s voice, I was immersed once again in the rough magic of childhood. The novel shows how seriously children can take the world and the way adults often fail to take their feelings into consideration when big things happen. There are freedoms in childhood that make it – from adulthood – seem appealing, but it can also be a time of confusion and fear for some children, and so it is for my main character.
The book is, essentially, a monologue that charts the summer of 1980 in the un-named narrator’s life in Dublin, Ireland. I wrote the novel in the second person – hence the novel’s title You. It’s a voice which comes very comfortably to me when I write. Some of my most successful short stories are also written in the second person and it’s a POV that worked well for Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City and also Edna O’Brien in A Pagan Place. Though, in their screamingly funny book How Not to Write a Novel, Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman say: “Certain late twentieth-century novelists used the second person singular successfully, notably Italo Calvino in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. But there it ended...In fact it was named the ‘second person’ when McInerney became the second person to get away with it and it became clear he would also be the last.” Ouch.
Second person is perhaps not as intimate a POV as first person – it deflects away from the narrator a little – but, as both writer and reader, I find it seductive. To my mind it is also a very natural way for an Irish person to tell a story: the narrator is at a small distance but uses the cajoling, close voice of a confidante – a storyteller in the reader’s ear.
There’s no big ‘why?’ in my story; You is a novel about friendship and loyalty and changing your mind about other people. It also explores the way children suffer when the people who love them let them down. The narrator is disdainful of adults; she notes their (many) faults and exposes them when they are wrong, but she is also willing to change her mind about them when she feels supported. The girl is mistrustful because she has been let down continuously: by her Da (he left); her Ma (attempted suicide); and in various ways by her mother’s new boyfriend and her father’s new girlfriend. The narrator is a dreamy, analytical, inward looking child – very internal in her approach to life – but sharp in her own way. She’s sensitive and spiky and craves normality; she just wants to be a little girl, but out of necessity she’s developing beyond her years. The child is more capable than the adults in her life so, when things go drastically wrong, she takes matters into her own hands because, she feels, at least she can trust herself.
If all that sounds a little grim I must quickly add that the book is told with humour as the narrator’s naivety often gets in the way of the truth of the situation.
Like most writers over the year-long period it took to write the novel, I developed a great affection for my main character. She became an extension of my life because I carried her and her voice around in my thoughts always. And even though I know she is not real, I can still think of her as if she is, as if she exists in some parallel place and time. And I suppose she does – each time a reader takes a book into her hands, she warps time and dives into the reality of another place. That the place and events sprung from someone else’s imagination matters little. I just hope that my readers get lost in the ‘you’ and that they are convinced enough by the voice of my novel’s girl-narrator to keep on reading.
One free copy of You is available to readers of Novel Spaces. Just leave a comment in the box and mention that you would like to be entered in the draw for the book.
—Nuala Ní Chonchúir