Irish author Louise O'Neill turns the spotlight on obsessive love in her third novel

Award-winning Irish novelist Louise O'Neill has a rare ability to tap into the darker corners of the female psyche. Here, she tells Gail Bell why it was important for her latest heroine to be real rather than likeable

Louise O'Neill, author of Almost Love
Gail Bell

OBSESSIVE love is the intoxicating theme running through Lousie O'Neill's absorbing third novel and, although just released, the award-winning Irish author says she has been astonished by the early response from readers.

"It's been amazing and really has taken me by surprise," enthuses the Co Cork writer, speaking from her penthouse suite in a Dublin hotel where she has been cosseted for the obligatory round of press interviews associated with the launch of Almost Love.

"The book has just been out for a week and I already have had hundreds of messages from women telling me they have had to deal with their very own 'Matthew' at some point in their life.

"And it has been interesting to see just how many people have identified with Sarah, who is not the usual type of lead character that a reader might want to empathise with."

Indeed. Having read this engrossing page-turner in a few days – it was difficult to put down – I can testify that Sarah Fitzpatrick is not very nice at all.

'What are you doing?' you want to scream when she reveals, yet again, her wanton neediness; living half a life in the shadow of an older man who has no interest in a relationship.

Life, of course, never runs a perfect course and, for O'Neill, who has an uncanny ability to slip inside the complex heads of her flawed characters and make them real – if not very likeable – that is exactly the point.

"The thing that people were saying to me is that they love Sarah because she's not perfect," O'Neill explains. "They identify with her weaknesses because she's authentic. There's an emotional honesty about her and people's lives are like that – they're not tied up in neat bows all the time."

The premise of Almost Love is simple enough – an intelligent, attractive, educated young woman lets herself be appallingly used and abused by an older man in the name of love, but it is the potency of the details which gets under the reader's skin and stays there.

It makes for uncomfortable reading at times but O'Neill, a former assistant stylist for Elle magazine in New York, says it is her intention that you squirm.

"I had the idea for the book after a friend sent me a book about obsessive desire," she reveals. "It proved uncomfortable reading for me and yet I couldn't put it down.

"I recognised in it some behaviour of my own from my youthful 20s and also that of my friends who all had stories of toxic relationships to tell. I knew beautiful women who had degraded themselves in the name of romance and suddenly thought, there's a universality here."

She won't go into specifics or mention a monstrous Matthew in her own youth – she is now 33 and single – but it was enough to make the writer of the acclaimed Asking For It pick the subject for further exploration.

Almost Love, though, is a multi-layered book and, set in flashbacks alternating between sections entitled 'Then' and 'Now', it picks at more than mere obsession.

The impact of childhood loss, fear of failure and silent resentment of the sense of entitlement of the nouveau Irish riche, also help shape the story – and, ultimately, our understanding of a damaged anti-heroine who seems determined to rush headlong into a black hole of her own making....

Interestingly, as the first draft was evolving, O'Neill, saw a very different ending for her female character than the one printed in the book.

"I was going for a more ambiguous ending, which I do feel is more reflective of real life which is not neatly tied in a bow at the end," she says.

But while her own life hasn't always proved the proverbial bed of roses tied up in that neat bow she resents so much, it has been a pretty easy ascent as far as writing goes.

Having left the small town charms of Clonakilty in west Cork behind for the bright lights of Dublin – she studied English at Trinity College and then completed a post-graduate diploma in Fashion Buying from the Dublin Institute of Technology – she headed to the even brighter lights of New York, but returned home with a slightly fractured view of the fashion industry.

Back in Ireland, she thought she would give writing a go and was surprised to find the awards piling up for both her debut novel in 2014, Only Ever Yours (a dystopian tale in which women are artificially created for men's pleasure) and for Asking For It, published a year later.

With regard to the latter, which tells the story of a girl gang-raped by boys she knows, it is, sadly, a story of our times, according to the author, who is reported as saying her first "non-consensual sexual experience" was at 12 years old when a boy brushed his hand against her breast when walking by on a Cork city street.

"Rape culture is an evergreen topic," says the writer who wrote a documentary on the subject for RTE in 2016 and believes most women have experienced sexual violence "at some level" and not always realised it.

Now well known for her feminist credentials, O'Neill returned to Ireland with a mixed view of the fashion industry while working on the New York magazine where "powerful women" were running the show and "making a lot of money" while at the same time, young girls on the dangerous side of thin were modelling on the catwalk.

"The fashion industry is definitely a female-dominated space but as time went on I did have some issues with the female form and the extreme thinness that was represented as perfection," she says.

It was a problem she mulled over deeply, having fought anorexia and bulimia as a teenager and then the worst happened – she suffered a relapse while working at Elle.

But, after seeing a good therapist, she had what she termed a "feminist awakening" which would go on to mark all her work in the future – including a retelling of The Little Mermaid – "with a feminine perspective".

"It's been fun to write," she says of The Surface Breaks, the new interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen's favourite fairytale which is due for release in May.

After that, there is the stage premiere of Asking For It which opens in Cork in June before moving to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, while film rights have also been sold for the first two books.

Only Ever Yours is at the casting stage, she says, while the script is still in progress for Asking for It.

Understandably, O'Neill is beside herself with excitement: "Life as a writer is full of solitude and it is funny to think that after working in the magazine, I spend most of my days now in my pyjamas by myself with the laptop on my knee," she reflects.

"I still love fashion – maybe not the industry itself – but I have nowhere to wear the lovely clothes hanging in my wardrobe."

Hopefully, a red carpet for a film premiere, or two, will soon put that to rights.

:: Almost Love, published by Riverrun, is in the shops now.

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