I loved Louise O’Neill’s YA novels (particularly Only Ever Yours) and I was very excited to learn that she would have her first adult novel published (on my birthday, no less!) O’Neill is gaining a reputation as a sharp, feminist observer of modern relationships, especially in Ireland, a place in which women can be and are still restricted by bafflingly conservative laws.
Almost Love is essentially the story of a toxic relationship between art teacher Sarah and a much older man, Matthew- a parent of one of her students and a famous property developer. O’Neill perfectly encapsulates the obsessiveness of a one-sided relationship, exploring Sarah’s reaction to Matthew’s selfish indifference and the fall-out of this in Sarah’s wider life: the affair literally ripples across her friends and family, ripping everything apart with the force of a tsunami. It’s hard to read, because Sarah is so frustrating as a protagonist (you want to shake her and make her see what’s happening.) But this led me to some empathy as well. When I was a similar age, I was involved in a similar sort of thing and I drove everyone mad with it; I understood, as I read, what was driving Sarah and also saw the effect of her actions clearly on everyone else- although thankfully I didn’t destroy everything. It’s not a comfortable thing to read, when you see yourself in a character this messed up. I read this book quickly- but blimey, I squirmed. I literally wanted to apologise to everyone who knew me when I was going through the same thing. With distance from the relationship (either with time, or as a reader), you see that Matthew is a complete shit, that he’s awful and not worth Sarah’s time. But I understood Sarah’s utter absorption into his world, the manipulation that she is allowing. It’s a great bit of psychological reading, if you’re into mucked-up relationships.
Normally, I’d class this in my ‘romance’ section of the blog, but it isn’t that. It’s a book about selfishness and power and sex and obsession. This is not a book for the faint-hearted and you will need to be prepared to mutter a lot at Sarah’s choices. But it’s a great first foray into writing for adults from a talented writer with a lot to say. I’m already looking forward to the next one.