“How can I describe what happened to me without the word love?” the unnamed narrator asks in the opening pages of Megan Nolan’s excellent debut novel, Acts of Desperation. What happened between this man, who liked to smoke while he received oral sex, and this woman, who liked to lay on the floor while her lover circled her like a shark? Chronicling their obsessive, worshipful, ultimately hazardous love, the narrator performs an autopsy, with an eye to cause and motive.
She starts with the moment she first laid eyes on him, an art critic named Cirian, while looking for a bar at a gallery opening in Dublin: it might have been love at first sight, but then she quickly realizes that she’s seen him before, narrowly avoiding a cliché. The narrator is aware of her story’s dangerous proximity to the fairy tale. She was a romantic herself then, waiting tables, and waiting for her stars to align. “My understanding was that every action would lead me to where I ought to be,” she reflects, “and where I ought to be was in love.” She leaves her first date with Cirian knowing that “it didn’t matter to me how funny he was, or what he thought of me, or what books we had both read. I was in love with him from the beginning, and there wasn’t a thing he or anybody else could do to change it.” Her fate is sealed; the gods of love have struck. Or so she once believed.
The qualities that drew her to him—“He seemed undeniably whole” and radiated an “immense stillness”—were precisely the ones the narrator, defined by those around her, fractured by solitude, quivering in indecision, felt herself lacking. He required little to be content. She was a bottomless pit of need. When Cirian begins indulging his cruelty, the narrator discovers that she likes debasement, which frightens her at first. From here, their relationship darkens, their mutual dependency intensifies.
She wants to say something about her own pain, and yet when she does, “I hear my voice enter the canon of Women Who’ve Been Hurt, becoming unknown, not-mine.” The narrator tells us about sobbing fits, about wanting to cut herself in the bathroom while Cirian smokes, indifferent to her, by the window. But these moments are described dispassionately, and out of their narrative context. The novel explores romantic and feminist conventions without ever aligning itself with them, which makes a very familiar story feel somehow revelatory.
Her fate is sealed; the gods of love have struck. Or so she once believed.
The relationship culminates with an act of sexual violence, the kind of event that can not only change the course of one’s future but also recast the events leading up to it. The narrator once thought of love as “the great consolation” for suffering. Now she refuses the consolations of victimhood. “I looked at myself, lumpen, and inelegant and abused, and thought: So what?” In the same passage, she describes “the horror of being hurt generically. Your experiences are so common that they become impossible to speak about in an interesting way.”
Nolan’s narrator describes the unequal relationship with an elegant evenness, looking back to see herself as she was, to understand why she fell for Cirian, and how they both became locked into this destructive dynamic. In her view, female suffering “is cheap and used cheaply by dishonest women,” the experiences of victimhood “narrative devices.” The tale of female suffering, like the love story, is only a partial truth. Nolan’s novel is pursuing the real.
With its themes of submission, the pleasures of degradation, class, and ambition, Acts of Desperation is superficially similar to books written by authors like Nolan—young women, many of whom are Irish. The protagonists of these novels have been accused of being too self-centered, alienated, disaffected, hyper-attuned to both society’s problems and their own, but powerless, or uninterested in change. But throughout Nolan’s briskly paced novel, the narrator remains in a state of flux, seeking not just to observe power but to understand her relationship to it. The book asks what determines an ending, and ultimately concludes that some fates are less inevitable than they seem.
In the final scene, the narrator is sitting on a beach, alone, remembering how she “had once loved to learn things … not to tell them to anybody else or to become someone different than I really was.” Loving something for its own sake is hard to do in a world that makes it so easy to love for the wrong reasons, but it is possible, the book suggests. The story she tells is common—from fiction, and, for many women, from life—but it is her matter, her blood and flesh, the DNA of specifics, that bring it to life and drive it toward its ending. It’s a mostly happy one.
Acts of Desperation, by Megan Nolan, is available on Amazon
Clementine Ford is an Associate Editor for Air Mail