Like her debut, 2017’s Promising Young Women, Caroline O’Donoghue’s second novel has a young female protagonist; Charlie is an aspiring film-maker with Irish roots who, in trying to explore her dying father’s traumatic past, makes a truly terrible film. Along with her friend and co-creator Laura, Charlie sets out for Clipim, a fictional island off the west coast of Ireland where her father was the only survivor of an unspeakable tragedy in the 1960s. Something doesn’t add up about his story. Can the not-quite British, not-quite-Irish Charlie uncover the mystery, while finding a way to reconcile her confused identity? We are certainly going to find out.
Charlie has never been to Ireland before. Her film is a litany of stereotypes, all shawls and staring out to sea, and she makes all the gaffes of a blow-in, including asking “if the IRA are here” in the local pub. Though being arrogant enough to make a film about a country you have never visited is within the plausible bounds of the imperialist script, it doesn’t quite ring true here, though the author tries her best to explain it.
The reader is manhandled through the plot: it’s like being at a puppet show and seeing all the strings
In fact, there is rather too much explication throughout, and some sloppiness in the writing. The protagonist is constantly “realising” things as the reader is manhandled through the plot: it’s like being at a puppet show and seeing all the strings. I would have appreciated more subtlety, especially as other aspects of Charlie, such as her side hustle selling nude photos on the internet, are frustratingly left blank.
Where O’Donoghue nails it is in her writing about women who make art, female collaboration, and identity. Here she is witty, tender and insightful, especially on the way oppression bleeds its way through the generations. “My great-grandfather’s family were very poor and very Catholic and spent the latter years of the nineteenth century either fleeing the country or dying of starvation,” she writes. “It’s one hundred years later and his closest living ancestor is living on the poverty line in a building where her post gets stolen.” O’Donoghue is a perceptive, clever writer, and there’s a hint of a more powerful novel inside this fun, plotty mystery.
• Scenes of a Graphic Nature is published by Virago (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.