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Deirdre Sullivan’s latest young-adult novel doesn’t just tread dark waters, it dives right in.
Her teenage narrator, Ces, uses tattooing as a way of reconstructing a self that has been fractured by sexual abuse and neglect. “I want to rewrite the language of my body,” she says, “the tension and repulsion in my bones.”
As she discovers all the things that her culture and her family make of her body, Ces strives to be the one who does the making, the one choosing what her body means.
Sullivan weaves two narrative registers together here: in the linear story, Ces describes her world of housework, homework, moneywork and a sort-of boyfriend. This narrative is cut with her other voice, the stream of words and images that underpin her every thought.
This more chaotic thread is italicised to distinguish it from the main narrative. It breaks through her story, bringing with it horrible memories, but all the time seeking a way to restructure her experiences with images and imaginative acts of reclaiming.
The two voices often bleed into one another, but the method works, nonetheless, to create a multilayered mindscape that pulls the reader deep into the narrator’s world.
I was initially sceptical of reviewing this novel for two reasons.
First of all, I find it hard to decide what special terms, if any, a self-proclaimed young-adult (YA) book should be criticised on.
Secondly, like the narrator of this book, “I hate seeing those faces in the bookshops, big wide eyes on white backgrounds and titles like Please Daddy Stop or Why Mummy Why?” – I am suspicious of anything that uses sexual abuse as its subject.
So I went into this reading with an eagle eye, but while there may have been one or two nits to pick, Needlework, with its beautifully stark, faltering voice and brutal insight, ultimately won me over. This is a wonderful novel, sensitive, poetic and brave, with all the components of a great coming-of-age story.
Terms and Conditions
As far as I can discern, the description “young adult” or “YA” is a market demographic, not a literary category, and the only qualifying criterion is an adolescent protagonist.
By that logic The Catcher in the Rye could be YA fiction, and maybe A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man too. These books are not subject to any special terms and conditions when it comes to criticism, so I am tempted to ignore the label.
All the same, as a marketing term, YA refers specifically to an intended readership between 12 and 18. So perhaps branding a book as YA comes with an implicit pedagogy. Is YA a sort of suitability rating, and should it tell teenagers what we want them to know?
Even read according to these drab terms, Needlework comes up trumps. I cannot help but be glad for the teenagers who will read a novel that addresses so tenderly the pain of forging an adult identity out of a childhood and a heritage we have not chosen.
Ces is named after her father, Francis. She shares his hair colour and his family bone structure; how can she hate him and not hate herself? Although her circumstances are extreme, Ces is also enduring the common experience of being a teenager, and feeling different:
“I want to grow back to normal. To learn what that is and ape it. Until I become like everybody else. Not somebody who wears herself like clothes that do not fit.”
Inwrought in Ces’s particular traumas are the same questions that adulthood poses for most adolescents – what is a man, what is a woman and what do these bodies mean? It is not only in her own family that Ces’s body is treated as an object, there is a whole force of culture to reckon with:
“There’s something magical about a woman showing you her body. Worth the ticket price and worth the wait … Your pain is magic too, it makes you innocent and not complicit. A victim, not a person.”
Through her tattoo-obsessed musings, Ces uses imagery to tease out the split identity being offered to her:
“You could make a thing of all that grooming, if you wanted. Put pretty packaging, polishes and fat yellow 1950s hairdryers, lipsticks, compacts, eyelashes and sequins down an arm. The other could be tampons, dirty cotton wool, razors with hair clinging to them …”
She sifts through all the stories and myths her culture has bequeathed her to find ones that she can forge a self from, telling and retelling folktales and ancient stories, only half understanding their significance and seeking from them something she can build herself from.
She lists a string of mythic women, searching for role models that she might tattoo for strength around her arm, and comes up with the likes of Athena, or a succubus.
Authenticity of Obscurity
The Eumenides’ Athena declares herself “always for the male with all my heart”. For many critics, she represents the man’s woman, born from the head of Zeus and not from any womb. This makes her particularly ill-fitting legend for girls seeking a representation of female power.
This background is omitted from the novel, so that Athena’s significance becomes difficult to understand. I was at first tempted to see this as a failing. Yet when the YA label is put aside, there is something far more authentic about a teenager faced with a terrible barrage of reflections, references, role models and signifiers, most of which are only partly construed.
The same can be said of the queer syntactical contrivances, like “Much kinder and much crueller than are knives.” They grated at first, and seemed pretentious, but by the end of the book, they too seemed a sort of authenticity.
Ces is a wordy person; she is not only constructing an identity out of images, she is also locating herself in a cultural heritage of words. At one point, an excuse is given for the archaic word order:
“My head aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense as though of vodka I have drunk. That’s Keats, except the vodka bit.”
Ces thinks in sentences, shaping her experience with words, and if some of what she makes is pretentious, then perhaps that is part of using words that aren’t our own to make a self.
For all the men the plot entails, this is really a story about women, the world of men they live in and must create from. Ces’s mother Laura is a victim herself, and can only fail her child:
“She must have scars,” says her daughter. “He learned how to hit her where it didn’t show. But she had moved to be with him and her friends drifted off one by one, like feathers off a duck that’s being readied for supper. I’m her little duckling, I suppose.”
Then there is the grandmother, all “little neat heels and brooches … above all things, a lady. A hard thing with a soft shell.” For most of the novel, the perfectly made-up Gran cannot see the evil in a man.
Turning instead on her own sex, she allows the abuse to continue. She is the Athena, the man’s woman whose very purpose is to oust the maternal from its place in culture.
And then there is Ces, who must find a way to become a different kind of woman.
Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan (Dublin: Little Island, 25 February 2016)