Tender – Belinda McKeon
In 1997 Catherine Reilly is in her first year studying English and Art History at Trinity College Dublin. Living away from her home on a farm in County Longford for the first time, she meets the aspiring artist and fellow exile from rural Ireland James Flynn. Whilst Catherine is tentative and lacking in confidence, James is flamboyant, knowledgable and penetrating. With his ‘mad red hair’, thin-lips and wearing the wrong kind of Docs, Catherine does not consider James boyfriend material, but the two quickly become inseparable – best friends of the fiercest kind. McKeon takes a line from James Salter’s Light Years as her epigraph: ‘You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.’
At 18, Catherine is well aware of her own cursed childishness, prone at times to petulance and giddiness. Her admiration for James is breathless and adolescent in tone: he is ‘brilliant’ and ‘amazing’, a blast of fresh air after the whispering conservatism of her home, and the relentless self-consciousness and doubt of her first year at Trinity. It’s a mark of the author’s achievement that the character of James goes some way to live up to Catherine’s estimation, stepping off the page with his ‘glinting comedy’ and his ‘fond, gleeful kind of swearing’. McKeon is expert at deftly poetic characterisations. James’s openess is described as an ‘unbothered honesty which seemed to cost him nothing to hand out.’ Catherine, by contrast, is subject to a constant terror of saying the wrong thing: ‘her mind clacking through possibilities like a panicked secretary’.
After the aridity of her upbringing, Catherine’s thirst for James and everything he represents, seems voracious. As readers we are subject to the less worthy thoughts and feelings that she is careful to hide from him. She envies her flatmates for the schooldays they shared with him. She becomes increasingly proprietorial of her friend: his time, his difference, his turmoil. When he returns to Dublin after working in Berlin, she parades him around to her University friends as both trophy and shield.
McKeon explored the tension between traditional rural and educated urban Ireland powerfully in her acclaimed debut novel Solace. Here Catherine’s housemate Amy jokes:
‘Nobody cares that you grew up on a farm. Anyone would think you’d crawled to college straight from the famine, the way you go on. Cows and tractors, for Christ’s sake. So what?’ But in fact we hear relatively little about Catherine’s background. McKeon offers just a few memorable scenes of life in Longford: a confrontation between Catherine and her fearful, controlling parents; a night with the ‘clodhopper morons’ down at the dire hometown nightclub; urgent advice from her hilarious Aunt Fidelma counselling Catherine to make the most of her freedom in Dublin:
‘When you’re my age you’ll know I wasn’t joking you. Ride. All. Around you.’
Many writers would be unable to resist mining this rich seam far more deeply but McKeon is unswerving in her focus on Catherine’s emotional journey and her relationship with James. Digressions, diversions and subplots are almost ruthlessly curtailed and suppressed. If reading Tender can at times feel a claustrophobic experience, it is deliberately so.
Set predominantly in the late 90s, the Celtic Tiger and the political negotiations in the North form the background hum of the novel. There is no tritely reductive mirroring of a young girl’s move to the big city with Ireland’s own expanding outlook of the time, but there is a sense of change and emergence. The decriminalisation of same-sex sexual acts is a recent memory and the Good Friday Agreement marks a new phase in the country’s history. 1998 was also the publication year of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters. McKeon appears to enjoy bringing other writers into her work. In ‘Solace’, Mark – also from a farming family in Longford, also studying at Trinity – is writing his thesis on Maria Edgworth. Here, as Catherine’s relationship with James becomes increasingly suffocating, she immerses herself in another troubled pairing, claiming as her own Hughes’s line:
‘What happens in the heart simply happens.’
Tender charts the marshy territory of friendship, obsession and love and McKeon offers no easy path. Catherine may lose her way with James, but her self-deceit is never complete, she maintains a terrible awareness of what she is doing. McKeon’s immersive, unflinching yet humane portrait of Catherine makes Tender a richly nuanced and utterly absorbing novel.