Tender by Belinda McKeon: Enduring love

TenderThere’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!

13 thoughts on “Tender by Belinda McKeon: Enduring love”

  1. This raises so many memories for me. I had an Irish friend who was gay but who, when I first knew him in 1991 couldn’t admit to anyone because he still had extensive family living in Ireland and I remember when the Good Friday Talks led to a vote him taking the day off so that he could go home and take part. I shall definitely want to read this for the first part of the story and if you and Colm Toibin both vouch for the author then no doubt I shall continue to the rest.

    1. I hope your friend is now living happily and openly, Alex. It’s hard to imagine what having to conceal an essential part of yourself does to the soul. A wee bit overwhelmed at being ranked alongside Mr Toibin as a judge of literature but I’ll accept the flattery and hope you enjoy the novel!

    1. Yes, it was certainly published at a very appropriate time.They’re both excellent, Poppy, I’m sure you’d enjoy them.

  2. I know exactly what you mean about that worry – I often have it, and it’s wonderful when the book in question turns out to be a treat. I’ll definitely be looking out for this in paperback.

    1. It’s always worse with a second novel – so much research, honing and polishing goes into the first then writers are under such pressure to deliver another, not to mention all that time spent on promotional tours. Anyway, this one was every bit as good as her first. I hope you enjoy it, Victoria.

  3. So glad you liked this one Susan, I loved it. As you say it’s very intense, very claustrophobic at times (like the relationship) but I found it really moving.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Me, too, Cathy. I thought she captured the way the relationship between Catherine and James developed beautifully. I was disappointed it didn’t make on to the Baileys longlist so I’m delighted it’s been shortlisted for the Encore Award.

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