Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Socially acceptable: Louise Nealon, Snowflake (2021)

The most recent issue of my email newsletter, which I sent out on 8 September, was about two short stories by Louise Nealon, the first of which, “What feminism is”, won the Seán Ó Faoláin prize for 2017. Having been able to find only two stories by Nealon online, and afraid that on their own they wouldn’t be substantial enough to support a single newsletter post, I had intended to round out that discussion with a few paragraphs on her first novel, Snowflake. Finding that I had written rather more than a few paragraphs and was still not approaching the end of what I wanted to say about the novel, I truncated the newsletter email and held over the discussion of Snowflake for a separate post. Here it is.

As I said in the newsletter, the novel features depression and other mental illness, isolation and loneliness, sudden and brutal death by farm machinery, attempted suicide, guilt, grief and out-of-control drinking. These are far from being unusual themes in Irish fiction but Nealon writes about them in a lighthearted and almost whimsical tone that makes these familiar motifs seem fresh and surprising. I’m not normally very keen on whimsy but where it’s used as here to leaven a story that might otherwise be unbearably bleak, it’s easier to put up with.

The first-person narrator is 18-year-old Debbie, who, when people ask if she’s considered becoming vegan or takes milk in her tea, tells them that she lives on a dairy farm — as if to say she lives on it, but isn’t really connected to it. The farm belongs to her uncle Billy, who lives in a caravan beside the house occupied by Debbie and her mother, Maeve, and (for the first part of the book at least), Maeve’s younger lover, James, who does much of the farm work.

Maeve suffers from bipolar disorder (as it’s eventually diagnosed) and believes she can share other people’s dreams. She is also given to dancing naked in a patch of nettles, getting stung all over. She explains:

“There is seratonin in them. That’s why they sting — they’re natural needles that inject you with a happy chemical. It’s good for you.” (p. 34)

Maeve had Debbie when she was just 18 — the age Debbie is now — and has never told anyone who Debbie’s father is. Debbie thinks it’s possible she might not know. James is 11 years younger than Maeve: not an outrageous age gap, but it means he’s just 7 years older than Debbie.

Although the farm is quite near the capital in geographical terms — a twenty-minute drive from Maynooth, which is in turn a forty-minute train ride from Dublin — Debbie has been in the city only once a year, to see the Christmas lights. Now, she has been accepted into Trinity College to study English literature and she’s feeling lost and isolated. This too is a familiar theme in Irish fiction but Nealon doesn’t labour it.

If Maeve’s dream-sharing is real, it seems that it may have been inherited by her daughter. It’s possible that this exposure to the dream-states of others has made it necessary for Debbie to innure herself to their suffering. Hungover and exhausted, Debbie falls asleep on her feet on a crowded train back to Maynooth. When she wakes, she “knows” that the man who was standing beside her, who has also been asleep, is in a desperate situation:

I’m just after waking up from being inside his head. And I know how he’s going to do it. He’s been thinking about it every day on the train home from work. He’s planning the best way to kill himself. (p. 101)

But there doesn’t seem to be anything that Debbie can do with this momentous, shocking information. How do you explain to someone that you’ve involuntarily seen into his most private thoughts?

I ignore my first instinct which is to tap him on the shoulder. What would I say? Give him some sort of cryptic message? Give him a hug? Every scenario I’m imagining is too dramatic for the everyday end of a commute. So I watch him disappear through the turnstile along with everyone else. (p. 102)

The dreams that make a particular impression on Debbie are ones that depict — or predict — catastrophic outcomes. As a child, she dreamt the death of a nineteen-year-old boy who accidentally drove his car into the wall of their garden.

I was a boy in the dream and I was driving a car. I can’t remember much about the dream itself but I remember how it ended. I didn’t see the sharp bend at the bottom of the hill until the last second. I locked hard and then I felt the ice underneath the tyres and it was graceful, really. And then a beautiful thought went through my head. The world spun me around like the way a woman unexpectedly makes you twirl on the dance floor and you feel a little silly, a bit emasculated really, but it doesn’t matter … (p. 30)

Debbie’s dream is just a moment or two ahead of reality, not enough for her to be able to do anything to prevent the catastrophe.

Mam says that I woke up screaming before we heard the car crash into the wall. I was inconsolable. It was my fault that the boy died. He had hurtled his way into my head and I had stopped him from going to heaven. He was in too many pieces, like the wreckage of his car that we kept finding in the garden. (pp. 30–1)

Years later, when James is killed by a rotating power take-off shaft on the farm, Debbie can’t avoid feeling that she should have been able to prevent his death. It’s not surprising that, to protect herself from feelings of guilt, Debbie should develop a callous attitude to pain and death. At one point, “afraid to go to sleep” (p. 111), she is out in the yard at night, getting some milk, when she hears a calving cow in distress.

The calf is still in the amniotic sac. I know that’s bad. Usually, the pink balloon bursts and dangles from the cow’s tail … I watch the cow push the sac out of her like it’s a giant squid. It slides onto the grass in a slimy bubble. All it needs is a prod or a poke and it would pop. I know that I should call Billy but I wouldn’t be able to explain why I was out in the yard at this hour. I’m so tired that I’m not even sure it’s happening. (p. 112)

Similarly, when she sees a hedgehog which has fallen through the cattle grid and can’t escape, she tells Billy not to try to lift it out with a shovel. Two other hedgehogs have already died of starvation in the same trap. “We can’t be lifting them all out,” she says. “You can’t come rushing over pretending to fix it all” (p. 228). Billy protests:

“It’s a big lump of a yoke. It’ll take at least a couple of days before it starts to starve to death.” (p. 228)

But Debbie is unmoved. She later learns that Billy has gone ahead and rescued the hedgehog without her knowledge.

Once she has started college, Debbie finds that one way to keep the dreams away is by drinking till she blacks out (p. 124). She is firmly convinced that she has never had sex but the blackouts make it impossible to be absolutely certain. Her best friend, Xanthe, and her doctor both urge her to get tested for sexually transmitted infections, but she balks at that prospect.

When she gets only a 2.2 in her first essay — Xanthe got the only first in their group while most of the others got 2.1s — Debbie goes to see a counsellor who tells her that she is suffering from anxiety. Debbie is not pleased.

Anxiety is a fancy word for worry, and worrying is not a medical condition. Depression is a fancy word for being sad, but it’s a stronger synonym. I could forgive myself for getting a 2.2 because of depression. I can’t forgive myself for getting a 2.2 because I’m a bit of a worrier. There has been no mention of depression at all yet. There’s an epidemic of depression among students. Depression is like the 2.1 of mental illnesses and she’s not even giving that to me. (pp. 137–8)

Like Debbie, Billy drinks too much and, like her, he does it partly to escape from his own consciousness. But he’s been doing it a lot longer than she has, and he has some pointers for her as to how to keep it within manageable limits:

“… Pace yourself. You’re looking for the sweet spot where you can act the maggot, but not lose control altogether. There’s no freedom in that …” (p. 190)

For Billy, as for many of their neighbours, alcoholism is a way of life, and it looks as if Debbie will be heading the same way before long. When Debbie eventually gets to see a therapist she can trust, she’s the woman who used to teach Debbie piano as a child, and a former schoolfriend of Billy’s.

Billy stopped taking me to piano lessons after someone told him that Audrey Keane had gone to rehab. It is socially acceptable to be an alcholic in our parish as long as you don’t get treatment for it. Being fond of the drink is a form of survival around here. If Audrey had kept quiet and continued to drink at home, people would have still sent their kids to piano lessons. Audrey’s problem was admitting that she had a problem, and the problem was with alcohol, the one thing everyone loved. (p. 68)

While Debbie drinks excessively to avoid the dreams that she thinks are not her own but other people’s, Billy does so because he feels responsible for the death of his mother when he was a child. Like Debbie, he has some faculties that appear vaguely paranormal — he’s a diviner, and not just of water, and he has “the cure” — but he has learned to adopt a matter-of-fact attitude to these, and not take them too seriously until they’re needed.

Maeve, who is acknowledged to be mentally ill, has no difficulty accepting her apparent ability to share dreams. She has an off-kilter way of perceiving the world but that doesn’t seem to make her a danger to herself or to anyone else. Debbie and Billy acknowledge that they don’t really need to keep an eye on her most of the time.

It’s true that Maeve smashes most of her teeth by repeatedly banging her face against one of the stairs, but she does this more out of grief at the loss of James than from depression or delusion. In contrast, Billy attempts to hang himself, and Debbie has been regularly drinking herself into a stupor in situations where she’s clearly not safe.

Once Debbie has been seeing her former piano teacher as a therapist for a while, her situation improves:

I had a good sleep last night. The dreams are still there. I’m just able to let them come and go. Xanthe bought me a bag of Guatemalan worry beads that I keep under my pillow … I’m dressed in someone else’s clothes that I found in a charity shop last week. I find it comforting to wear clothes that already have a history of their own. (p. 351; ellipsis added)

The two short stories and the novel are thematically quite distinct from each other. Nealon’s publishing deal is for two books, so I’m looking forward to the second. But I really hope she’ll get the chance to write some more short stories.

Posted by Art on 18-Sep-2022.