Megan Nolan is weighing up how she feels about her relatives back home in Waterford, Ireland, reading her first novel, Acts of Desperation. She is not, she says, looking forward to it. I tell her that she might have to get used to it; I don’t live far from Waterford, and have noticed that she has already made the local newspaper (not to mention previews of 2021’s notable new voices in the Irish Times and the Observer). Anyway, what’s the problem? Everyone has been so supportive, she replies, “as soon as they heard that I was writing this book, and was having the book published, you know, everyone is so nice about it. And they’ll say, ‘I can’t wait to get it, and we’re going to have such a party when you get back.’ And then I just think: ‘Oh my God, they’re all going to buy it and be really moved that they’re buying it and then they’ll get home and have to read that.’”
“That”, she elaborates, is not exactly the sexual explicitness of Acts of Desperation’s depiction of a young woman’s life in Dublin, nor even its portrayal of prodigious boozing and partying, “but just that it’s so unhappy. You know, it’s quite a painful book to read. I just think, ‘I wish I could have given them a good experience.’”
She is laughing as she says this, but I still feel compelled to reassure her that her friends and relatives will understand that writers often work with difficult and painful material. True, she agrees – maybe she’ll just feel a bit embarrassed: “When people will feel obliged to say, ‘Oh well done, that was a good book,’ I’ll just be thinking about, you know, the more abject parts of it.”
What Nolan is, in part, referring to is the relationship between her narrator and Ciaran, a man she first spots in a library and then speaks to at a gallery launch, a man so attractive as to provoke disbelief: “Nobody so beautiful,” she says, “could live with us.” They become a sort-of couple, despite his self-containment and odd coldness, his lack of interest in the details of her life and his attachment to a previous girlfriend who has, in his reckoning, betrayed him. Infatuated, she ignores every danger sign going, and falls into a profound grief when they break up; when they get back together and move into a flat, she succumbs to his controlling nature, which ranges from lecturing her about flossing her teeth to discouraging her from seeing her friends and explosive bouts of jealousy. Finally, inevitably, there is an episode of horrible violence.
But Acts of Desperation is not simply a portrait of a relationship that descends briskly into the coercive and abusive; it is also an exploration of early adult life, of lostness and excess, of alienation and complicity. “I didn’t ask love of him,” the narrator tells us. “I didn’t want him to look in my direction and see me; for there was no thing I could say, with confidence, was me.”
You’d struggle to compare my novel to say, Sally Rooney’s or Naoise Dolan’s – I don’t share a style with either of them
Nolan, 31, is a journalist and essayist; in columns for the New Statesman and the New York Times, she has written about sadness, loneliness and self-harm with a candour and delicacy punctuated with breezy wit. She is delighted when I tell her parts of Acts of Desperation made me laugh out loud – such as the moment when a one-night stand takes the narrator to a properly fancy apartment and she notes: “Being young and beautiful felt like a lot sometimes, felt like it translated to real-world power, but money shat all over it every time.” Nolan’s editor, she says, suggested she introduce some of the flavour of her journalism into the novel to vary the tone, and she’s glad it worked.
But there’s no disguising the novel’s darkness, its preoccupation with romantic obsession, a fractured sense of self, purposelessness and atomisation. Nolan says that early readers who’ve had what she calls a negative reaction to the book “just can’t understand how she could behave in this way, or how she could let herself be like that. And I was trying to think about that when I did get that response from people. And what I realised was that it’s not as though she’s chosen to prioritise this [the need to find romantic love], it’s that she’s had a sort of failure of other options. She doesn’t have another thing in her life to hook everything on to and this has just been the default way to feel and to interpret the world. And I think that is pretty real.”
The core narrative takes place in Dublin between 2012 and 2014, with interludes several years later, when the protagonist is in Greece, reflecting on how her life has changed; there is a sense that she has escaped and matured. Although Nolan is clear that there has been no Ciaran in her own life, the novel’s contours and trajectory – a teenager from smaller-town Ireland moves to the capital and pieces together a life of makeshift jobs and temporary accommodation while partying hard – do mirror those of her own youth.
“When I think back to when I moved to Dublin at 18, the way that I drank was crazy,” she recalls. “And everyone who I knew did it, you know, and it was totally normalised, really hard-core problem drinking for everyone involved. I don’t know whether that’s to do with Dublin, or the period of my life.”
It becomes apparent that it was also to do with how her life was developing, or failing to. An exceptionally bookish youngster who grew up in a rich cultural environment – her father is a playwright who co-founded a theatre company in Waterford, her mother also involved with the arts scene – she had become fixated on going to Trinity College Dublin and studying English. When she failed to get the grades for that course, she realised she could still go to Trinity if she switched to film studies and French and did so, despite having no particular aptitude for or interest in the subjects. She quickly became overwhelmed and dropped out in the first few months.
But it wasn’t just academic stress that was troubling her; she also found that she felt “totally incapable” of taking care of herself, which surprised her because she had been in a band that spent weekends touring small venues across the country and had hitherto been pretty independent.
You get the sense that this is Nolan’s real subject, and this is why Acts of Desperation is so resonant; its bad relationships, the over-drinking and the unsatisfactory jobs are symptoms of a deeper sense of distress, a feeling of being out of kilter with the world. Nolan describes periods of her life when day-to-day reality and existence felt simply unmanageable; not so much depression as a more agitated and restless inability to cope. Articulating her thoughts in writing was a big help; before that, she would sometimes be confused that others would be able to get on with life in a comparatively calm way.
She left Ireland before she really started writing in earnest, and I ask her whether her departure was prompted by that desire to create work. No, she laughs, she was following a boy she was in love with to New York: “We broke up even before I’d left, but I still came anyway, for some reason.” In fact, she credits him with encouraging her to move, not merely geographically, but towards trying to earn her living by writing. “I think I had also had enough of Dublin, really. I carried a lot of baggage about it until quite recently. I think almost until I sold the book and I had this definitive thing to say, ‘Oh, I’ve done well for myself’, I found it hard to come back to Dublin. Just because I’d really messed my life up there.”
I ask her how she feels about the way the younger generation of Irish writers is currently being written and spoken about. She replies that she finds it confusing – the descriptions of a new wave of authors just feels, to her, like another year of Irish books being published. She adds that when Sally Rooney’s forthcoming novel was recently announced, a friend “very cruelly” texted her and asked if it made her worried she’d be asked about it more. But, she points out, although she admires both writers, “you’d struggle to meaningfully compare my novel to say, Sally Rooney’s or Naoise Dolan’s, for instance, if you go beyond the basic stuff of young Irish woman and relationships; I don’t think I share a style with either of them.”
It’s a fair point. Nolan’s subject matter chimes with a frank exploration of interiority and pain that is hardly uncommon in fiction, but it is strikingly singular. Her next novel, she says, is “a very different sort of project where it’s not all about me”. It’ll be intriguing to discover where that shift in focus leads her.
• Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan is published by Vintage (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.