The debut novel by the NS columnist tells a story of obsessive, self-destructive love. In present-day Dublin, the unnamed narrator meets Ciaran, a half-Danish art critic, with whom she falls into an abusive, on-off relationship. The narrator contorts her life around Ciaran, cuts out time with friends and hides the least desirable parts of herself, such as her alcoholism. She is aware of how harmful her behaviour is but listens only to the impulse to carry on. Acts of Desperation creates an immersive experience of toxic romance through a suffocating and addictive narrative.
Nolan’s narrator is very much a part of this story, not a sardonic spectator. She looks back on her relationship with Ciaran, a cold and troubled individual, with contempt for his treatment of her, but her own role within the dynamic is also questioned and scrutinised. In this way, Acts of Desperation seems more aligned to an older sensibility of Irish writing, that of Edna O’Brien, Nuala O’Faolain, Rosita Sweetman. There is an innocence on the part of the narrator, at least for the initial months of the relationship, that recalls the hopeful, love-eager protagonists of these writers. The awakenings are brutal but keenly felt.
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.
There is so much to admire in this extremely impressive first novel, which captures an intense experience with clarity and style. It is fully itself, and flawless in its way. I also found it claustrophobic, and airless. This is obviously the point – the narrator wilfully removes herself from any sources of energy, letting life narrow to the flat she shares with Ciaran: the effortful meals she assembles in the kitchen, the increasingly joyless sex they have in their bed, the masochistic fantasies described in her diaries, the bottles of wine drunk secretly. These are scenes that Nolan evokes powerfully. But there’s more to the airlessness than the narrator’s claustrophobia. I found, as a reader, that there was also an airlessness in the moral vision.
Nearly 300 pages is a long time to sustain a first-person voice without risking airlessness. Towards the end I wished for a little more showing and a little less telling. The novel’s key dramatic event is arguably too crude a climax. These are tiny niggles. Mostly I was transfixed with admiration and visceral horror. I knew a Ciaran once, and this novel is an extraordinary likeness — not of the man, but of the mechanism, the way you get from hopeful “hello” to acts of degrading desperation. Nolan’s headlong, fearless prose feels like salt wind on cracked lips. You wince and you thrill.
Acts of Desperation fits neatly alongside Normal People, but it’s also part of a wider spate of contemporary novels by young women who write against the conventional feminist narrative in which for decades heterosexual women have been encouraged to value themselves outside their relationships with men. Nolan’s emotionally hollow protagonist defines herself entirely by men. So, to some extent, does the self-harming Edie in Raven Leilani’s Luster, for whom sex is also often a form of emotionally disengaged, masochistic pleasure.