Feeney has a remarkable ability to move between registers. On Monday morning rounds, a group of student nurses equipped with orange energy drinks and suffering from the previous night’s exploits take over the narration in the staccato of young adult fiction (‘Legend night. But OMG that taxi driver. Creepy.’) A few paragraphs later, we’re with Margaret Rose and Jane, on the hunt for a miracle cure for the fast-declining Shane. They consider ‘a drop of blessed oil of St Thérèse of Lisieux or even a lock of St Francis of Assisi’s hair, even a hair from one of his pets’ – but settle on a mitten that belonged to Padre Pio. Margaret Rose arranges for it to be sent to the Hospital in the care of a ‘trusted bus driver’: ‘With the help of good God and all of his many archangels, especially the favourite one, Michael, or so they thought, although they were unsure as to which archangel was the favourite, the glove would get here, safely, off the Navan bus.’ There’s a bit of everything in this novel, from poetic naturescapes to unadorned pages of dialogue, from excoriations of the Irish government to a ‘must bring’ wishlist right out of Vogue (if Edward Enninful’s readership consisted of terminal patients). Feeney’s selective use of a sans serif typeface (often the gimmicky sign of a novelist’s awkwardness in handling the world of social media) here aligns perfectly with the narrative collage.
This is a novel of our time: if there was a feeling during the 2000s that Ireland had begun the giddy process of waking up from the nightmare of history, the 2010s has been a decade of examination of the deep traumas of Ireland’s past. Feeney’s book suggests that not only is the past ever present, but how to talk about things that have been secreted away remains a complicated business. In the novel we learn that Sinéad has always been a voracious reader, much to her callous father’s vituperative distrust.
Feeney’s writing is broken into spaced paragraphs, like a series of long stanzas. At times her words tumble like a waterfall, at others, the language is restrained and crisp, paced with the skill of a poet. This is writing that often reaches into your heart and clutches it. A memory of Sinead’s late-term miscarriage is particularly moving – “That’s what they call it now, Contents. And they didn’t probe it or talk to it, with their useless machine, now that the machine no longer answered back” - as is the discovery of a message from Shane to Sinead on his old laptop.
For all its cruel awakenings, As You Were is also about friendship and community – a strong bond develops between Sinéad and two elderly women on the ward – that has plenty of laughs along the way. The busyness of the opening section, where we meet too many characters at once, transitions smoothly into daily life on the ward, where stories of single mothers, laundries, homosexuality and abortion are all vividly rendered and interspersed with the ordinary realities of dying:
“‘Like if I were to die suddenly you need to make a hair appointment immediately. I’m a state,’ I said, as I grabbed a fistful of my brassy yellow hair in my hand.”
As You Were offers meditations on life and death from the coalface. Fierce and insistent, its stories continue to burn brightly long after reading.
The common denominator is a particularly Irish brand of shame, which still exerts its grip down the generations: “It was the most contagious thing inside and outside Hospital.” There are obvious comparisons with the lyrical writing of Eimear McBride; Feeney’s voice is at once fresh and sharp, with an eye for the comedy of existential dread.