Catherine has come from rural Ireland to study in Dublin in 1997. She’s modern enough to be ironic about her countrified upbringing, but, under the surface of her self-awareness, she’s as naive as any protagonist of a traditional coming-of-age story. Indeed, she reminded me a lot of another fictional Dublin undergraduate, albeit one who attended the university more than a decade earlier; Maria in Emma Donaghue’s brilliant Stir-Fry. Becoming friends with the more worldly-wise, complex James, is, for Catherine, the discovery of the ‘friend of my life’ that James Salter describes in the epigraph to this novel. ‘He was the friend of my life. You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.’ Catherine congratulates herself on being friends with someone who is so quirky, so cosmopolitan, so little like her; especially when she finds out that James is gay. Being friends with James isn’t special merely because of their shared jokes and taglines, but because it makes Catherine see herself as a different kind of person. The lengthy letters that James writes to her over a summer apart are only skimmed; what’s important to Catherine, at least at the beginning, is the fact of her friendship with James rather than the way it actually plays out in practice. In this way, the sense that James is the ‘friend of [her] life’ emphasises that their friendship was so important both because they genuinely clicked with each other, and because their friendship was life-defining. Catherine cannot have another friend like James, because her life is no longer as malleable as it was when she met him. This is why the friends of our earlier years will always matter so much.
It felt right to be finishing this wonderful novel as the Yes vote for marriage equality swept the board in every constituency in Ireland except one, with a more than 70% majority in favour in some of Dublin. James’s experiences as a gay man in a period where homosexuality is no longer illegal, but is far from being accepted, reminded me of Donal Carroll’s words about community in this post on the same-sex marriage referendum. Being permitted is not to be welcomed, and James is acutely aware of this: ‘every day there was still the fear; not being able to hold his boyfriend’s hand in the street… And even though they were not holding hands, seeing the way people looked at them, knowing that people saw them, and knew, and hated them’. Catherine’s studied stance of equality, however, is perhaps more telling than any of the more obvious homophobia that James encounters. She is positively thrilled, at first, that he is gay, both because this distinguishes him as somebody so different from anyone she has known before, and because this supposedly makes him a man she can relate to, unlike the faceless, frightening men she is meant to be falling in love with: ‘There was this feeling – and she was far from proud of it – of having been given something… She had never before known somebody who was gay. Nobody real… It had almost been a fantasy – a fantasy upon a fantasy – men who were not just loving, but so loving that they were able to love other men.’ Catherine’s view of what it means to be gay is framed not just by her lack of understanding of sexuality but by her definition of masculinity as something hard, strong, and loveless. It would be easy to criticise her or even dislike her for her ignorance, but, to be honest, her words took me back to my own early teens at an all-girls school, where men were another species and gay men were even harder to fathom.
I loved Belinda McKeon’s debut, Solace, because of the gentle power of the writing; the way she took initially unpromising subject-matter and made something deeply affecting out of it. But I think that I liked Tender even more. In some ways, it feels broader in scope than the earlier novel. The timeless quality of Solace, which I commented upon in my initial review, has given way to a deeper rooting in a specific time and place, with landmarks such as the Good Friday Agreement prominent in the text, and I think McKeon’s writing is stronger for it. On the other hand, Tender’s actual focus is even narrower than that of Solace; we have one point-of-view character, Catherine, and one important relationship, Catherine and James. How much she makes the reader care about these two characters with so little that is, on the surface, eventful or surprising, is a triumph in itself. Structurally, as well, the writing gradually unravels as the story plays out, with the careful, measured narrative in the early chapters giving way to white space, single-sentence paragraphs and stream-of-consciousness prose, but this does not feel gimmicky, as it so easily could. The weightiness of Catherine and James’s story is not because it is an especially unusual one, but because what happens is weighty for them. This is a very hard thing for a novelist to pull off.
‘He was the friend of my life. You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.’ Catherine’s friendship with James moves beyond the initial thrill of having someone with whom she can appear modern, enlightened, experienced, and she is not the only one who sees the possibility of being someone else reflected in her partner’s face. The story of their friendship is not the story of a sudden, inevitable alliance, the way that both of them like to tell it: ‘Already they had their own way of talking, their private phrases, their language’. Nevertheless, the complexities brewing beneath the surface don’t mean that the things they do together are meaningless. If anything, Tender seemed to me to suggest the importance of friendship and of friends like these, even if these relationships can never be perfect in an imperfect world.
N.B. I received a copy of Tender directly from the author, but (as with other free products I will be reviewing on this blog) I have written this review because I genuinely loved the novel and want others to read it. Tender will be released on 4th June in the UK.