There are toxic relationships, and then there’s the relationship at the centre of Megan Nolan’s fearless debut. From compulsive beginning to violent end, the love affair between the novel’s narrator, a young university dropout in Dublin about whom we learn everything – everything – but her name, and the older Ciaran, a half-Danish poet, is supremely messed up.
For a start, there’s the sheer weight of expectation that Nolan’s heroine brings to it. Love is “the great consolation”, she insists. She finds Ciaran so beautiful she worships him, rhapsodising about his truffle-scented mouth. Readers may not be so charmed. For a start, he doesn’t like modern fiction. He also loathes seeing his girlfriend drunk, which is problematic given that she marked the night of their meeting by getting so lit she burst the blood vessels around her eyes throwing up.
The trajectory of their romance is signalled early on, and soon enough there’s weeping in the bathroom, not to mention blood among the potato peelings in the kitchen sink. But the novel’s less lurid confessions are almost more disturbing – like the moment when, with Ciaran in her past, she’s trying to cope with a male friend who’s sharing her bed. “He kept touching me and eventually I did what I had to do to stop him from wanting to have sex with me, which was to have sex with him,” she sighs. It’s amusing, relatable, crushing.
What galvanises the narrative in lieu of plot is the fierce urgency that Nolan, a New Statesman columnist, brings to her heroine’s musings. In particular, this is a book with plenty to say about victimhood and sexual violence, about the way women censor their own needs and ironise or eroticise their abasement. While some of this is provocative, it’s all rendered in prose that is bright and warm.
Nolan’s gutsiest achievement, however, is reclaiming the female experience of love and desire in all its shades from lighter literature, making of it something frequently unpretty – unromantic, really – yet intensely vital and worthy of examination. Like some kind of fairytale quest, in doing so she frees her narrator. As the young woman asks wonderingly at the novel’s close “What would I think about, now that I wasn’t thinking about love or sex?”
• Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply