Orchid & The Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes

This is an impressive book: emotionally complex; multilayered; and stylishly written. It’s essentially a ‘rite de passage’ novel about a young woman, Gael, but it neatly undercuts the genre. Gael has a brother called Guthrie, younger than her and prone to fits. She has become his supporter and defender in place of her rich absent father, Jarleth, and her preoccupied mother, Sive, who is a composer and conductor. The other feature in the book is Art, Sive’s new partner.

The book is arranged episodically and straddles almost ten years of Gael’s life so we see her change and develop. This is where the title of the book comes in and it relates to the revolutionary evolutionary theories of Felix Guattari which, to summarise disgracefully, suggest that most theories of evolution reflect capitalist models and that the orchid and the wasp are not in a competition for survival but collaboration in the continual act of becoming like one another. ‘Becoming’ rather than getting somewhere is a key theme in the book and Gael has a nasty sting as well as being attractive.

Gael responds to the world as she sees it, aggressively making her way through a range of situations on the basis of her own judgements about what other people need and want. By the end of it, it is possible to see places where she has gone disastrously wrong. She misjudges Art and fails to make sense of her parents and what they want from life. She tries to act in Guthrie’s interests and alienates him. She drives away Harper who wants to be her friend. She often goes for the simplistic truth rather than trying to unravel the complexities of situations. This is the act of becoming, trying stuff out, going down blind alleys and then trying something else.

I really liked that about the novel. We are not presented with a character that gradually becomes finished and polished. In fact, the ending of the book is enigmatic but what we do know is that she has already impacted on the lives of those around her.

In places the book is oddly poetic and, in others, there are arguments to be explored. The concept of negative and positive liberty – which societal doors are open and which are closed – is pivotal for Gael who achieves some outrageous entrances. When Sive explains about why Art is as he is, we realise the complexity of these characters. ‘He won’t talk about death to people who haven’t experienced it. They can’t relate and he doesn’t want to make them try. That’s a generosity. It’s the most difficult thing; the existence of life’s opposite, hovering over us always as a possibility.’ That is good writing and an excellent read.

(Orchid & The Wasp will be published in June 2018. I received an advance copy through NetGalley.)


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