Caitlin "softens reality", we learn, and there are moments when O'Callaghan risks the same. Some touches – such as the electric kettle tray that looks like "a modernist commentary on the instant and the artificial" seem overplayed. Others, such as the "rose-coloured underwear" that Caitlin "owns and sports exclusively for Michael", feel that bit too coy. The grimy details of this long-drawn-out affair – how the pair kept meeting without ever being spotted, how they managed the cost of the hotels, chosen methods of contraception – feel lost somewhere, left down a crack in the narrative sofa... In this deliberately uncertain work, nothing feels quite anchored or finished – and it's that stylish resistance to resolution, in the end, that impresses most.
Told in flashbacks from a single wintry day when they check into a hotel, O’Callaghan’s novel ranges deep into their pasts, focusing on Caitlin’s marriage to boring Thomas and Michael’s complex relationship with Barbara. Their marriage has been destroyed yet held together by the death of their baby boy; and now that Barbara has cancer, the situation is even more complicated. With love in the foreground and grief all around, this floridly written novel is a melancholy performance, a book of some beauty but little comfort.
It's unlikely that My Coney Island Baby is going to ever be dubbed the feel-good hit of 2019, what with its overcast naval-gazing and the viciously sad backstories of these two lives that O'Callaghan ushers into the fold in order to show us what is on the line when they emerge the other side of that dull hotel room.
But despite this pallor of inevitability, O'Callaghan somehow finds vibrant colour, sultry purples and burnt oranges, to paint with. A renowned short-story writer before debut novel The Dead House, he is capable of beguiling flourishes of beauty and humanity, all underscored with a lyrical finger-snap.
Images rendered here stick with you, such is the intensity that they shimmer with.
Meanwhile, daylight is fading. The lovers are running out of time. Michael has told Caitlin that his wife, Barb, has terminal cancer. Caitlin is building up to revealing some bad news of her own. She “understands completely that, without Michael, she is alone” and that she has “stepped wrong and lost out on a soul connection”. Darkness falls and duty calls. The couple battle back through the storm and sit huddled together on the train, staring at a pair of young lovers across the aisle. In the closing pages, O’Callaghan’s prose reaches a pitch of emotional intensity that ensures these characters will linger with you long after the book is closed.