by Caoilinn Hughes
We meet eleven-year-old Gael Foess and her younger brother Guthrie, the children of wealthy but aloof parents (Jarleth, an arrogant and controlling investment banker for Barclays, and Sive, a self-absorbed but gifted principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra) at the point when she is expelled from primary school for running a business flogging “virgin pills” to her classmates.
The story begins in 2002, at the tail-end of the first Celtic Tiger – a period lasting from the mid nineties to the very early noughties when the Republic of Ireland enjoyed rapid economic growth fuelled by foreign investment, which led to a property price bubble. The financial boom brought on a period of fervid spending as Ireland became one of the richest countries in Western Europe and disposable income soared. Now Gael’s family, like the Irish economy, is crumbling about her.
Gael is fiercely intelligent, shockingly precocious and very funny, but her witty banter masks a profound anxiety over the future of her loved-ones; something she conceals from those around her because her father has instilled in her a belief that fear is an unforgivable weakness. Gael seeks but fails to impress him because, what Jarleth really wants is for his vulnerable, gentle-natured son to be ‘a man’ and refuses to accept that he has crippling emotional issues.
From teens to young adulthood, we follow our anarchic protagonist on a journey that takes her from Dublin to London to New York and the birth of the Occupy movement. She dodges emotional entanglements, lacks scruples and very often lands herself in trouble, but always loves her fragile brother. He is the one decent and honest person in her life, though she undoubtedly sees him as her Achilles heel.
Orchid & the Wasp is a dark but highly amusing coming-of-age story, which encompasses sexuality, mental health, class, religion and contemporary politics. The prose is vivid and its characters leap off the page, grabbing you by the scruff, but none more so than our furious, artful, spunky heroine, Gael Foess.
Prize-winning Irish poet, Caoilinn Hughes has written a stunningly ambitious debut novel, revealing a considerable talent. If this is a beginning, she is destined for literary greatness.
Many thanks to Oneworld for providing an advance review copy of this title.