There’s always a moment of worry when you’re about to plunge into a book you’ve been looking forward to for some time. I remember Belinda McKeon’s Solace being surrounded by a great deal of pre-publication buzz, lots of well-known names singing its praises one of whom was Colm Tóibin which made me pay more attention than usual. It turned out to be one of my favourite books of that year, hence the slightly apprehensive anticipation for Tender. In some ways, we’re back in the same territory: young people leaving rural Ireland for the city, both with strong ties to their families, both about to stretch those ties to snapping point.
Catherine and James meet in Dublin when James returns from his Berlin stint as a photographer’s assistant to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. Entirely different from each other, they almost instantly click. He’s tactile and outgoing, loudly pontificating on everything and everybody yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long they’ve accumulated all the trappings of intimate friendship, everyone convinced they’re a couple. Eventually, James tells Catherine he’s gay: readers will be far from surprised but it comes as a shock to her. Soon she begins to bask in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told. For all his apparent confidence, he’s unable to act on his sexuality, pouring out his misery in his letters to Catherine when he returns to Berlin, letters which she guiltily neglects given her newly busy social life. When James comes back unexpectedly, her attention is elsewhere, but then things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. The novel begins in 1997, continuing through to 1998 when the Good Friday talks appear on the horizon, then ends in 2012, with Catherine and James established in their adult lives – one happy, one not.
Impossible not to read this novel without thinking about the resounding vote in favour of gay marriage passed in Ireland just last month. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, a ‘yes’ vote seemed certain for Dublin but voters in rural Ireland might have tipped the balance the other way despite those heart-warming scenes of people disembarking from boats, planes and trains, coming home to have their say. In the event, those fears were unfounded. Set eighteen years before the referendum, Tender portrays the pain of being gay in a country that had only decriminalised homosexuality five years before. McKeon is particularly good at capturing Catherine’s social awkwardness, her proud excitement at having a gay friend and the self-absorption which blinds her to James’s pain. It’s an extraordinarily intense novel at times: at one point the narrative fractures into short paragraphs as if to allow its readers gulps of air. There’s a long section in which McKeon explores Catherine’s relationship with James through The Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes’ collection of poems to Sylvia Plath, which forms the basis for Catherine’s essay. I’m sure it works if you know the poems well, but it’s a little confusing at times for those of us who don’t. That said I found Tender a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one, particularly in the light of that referendum vote. Clever title, too!