Scenes of a Graphic Nature
by Caroline O’Donoghue | Virago | €13.99 pb | 352pp | 9780349009957
review by Joanne O’Sullivan
“…an absorbing and compelling mystery that takes a nuanced view of contemporary Ireland and its historical failings.”
Scenes of a Graphic Nature, the second novel from Caroline O’Donoghue, is an intriguing combination of murder mystery and Irish history. Charlie’s life has stalled. At 29 years old, she’s living at home with her mother and avoiding dealing with her father’s terminal illness. Her relationship with her mother is far from perfect, and their hospital visits with her father only seem to remind her of the carefree and close relationship she once enjoyed with him. She can’t help but enviously compare how her post-university life has turned out with her best friend, Laura. While Laura is ascending the TV career ladder in London and LA, Charlie is working in a cafe and running a side business making amateur porn online.
Charlie is still clinging to one of her early successes in film-making, and trying to promote the short film she made about her father’s extraordinary childhood on the island of Cliphim. Nicknamed Clip by the locals, it’s a fictional island off the coast of the south-west coast of Ireland. Charlie’s father grew up in the small community, and became the infamous and sole survivor of a mysterious accident that claimed the lives of the rest of the island’s children. Despite being unsure of her relationship with Ireland, having never visited and having lived in England her whole life, Charlie is intent on telling her father’s story and submits the film to the Cork Film Festival. It’s only when Charlie sees her film screened in front of an audience in Cork city that she realises it’s ‘full of tired, offensive clichés’ and ‘clangs with a sort of strange falseness’. A conversation with another festival attendee raises even more questions about what really happened that day in the schoolhouse, so Charlie and Laura set off in search of the real story, and travel to Clip to try to uncover the truth. Their conversations with long-term residents of the islands, and some of the younger new arrivals, force Charlie to question the story of her father’s childhood and her complicated relationship with Ireland.
The book is undoubtedly a page-turner, and it’s examination of Ireland through the lens of a contemporary thriller feels new and interesting. There are times when the book battles to find a balance between these two very different themes, and thriller certainly wins out. The hatred of some of the young locals for their English visitors provides plenty of drama, as well as some of the islanders’ sinister efforts to scare Charlie off her investigation. The secrecy and corruption of some of the Irish characters admittedly feel a bit exaggerated in order to fuel the suspense; O’Donoghue, however, draws other elements, such as Charlie’s struggle with her relationships and attempts to find herself, with razor-sharp realism. Her changing relationship with Laura, and her questioning of some of the unhealthy dynamics in their formerly close friendship, is a skilled portrayal of the precarious nature of all-consuming friendships. The book’s acknowledgement of Magdalene Laundries and the scandal of the Tuam babies is an admirable early attempt at illustrating contemporary Ireland’s relationship with some of the most shameful elements of our history, even if there isn’t the opportunity to explore it in depth.
Scenes of a Graphic Nature is an absorbing and compelling mystery that takes a nuanced view of contemporary Ireland and its historical failings. Similar to some of the strengths in O’Donoghue’s début novel Promising Young Women, it captures the murky period between university life and adulthood well, and Charlie is a contemporary, complicated heroine who will ring true for millennial audiences.
Joanne O’Sullivan presents All About Books for Dublin City FM (103.2),
a weekly dive into the world of books and publishing.