“Motherless children. The term fatherless children doesn’t contain the same poignancy. Mothers are so integral to everything, happiness or unhappiness. They are to adore. Or to blame. No middle ground.” Anne Tiernan’s debut novel is concerned with parentage, legacy, intergenerational trauma, but ultimately how, as one of her characters notes, we reach a stage in life where our ghosts can enrich us. It’s a line attributed to Proust, worked nimbly into the novel through the perspective of the youngest sibling of the Tobin family, writer Sinéad, who is struggling to produce a second book after a successful debut.
The choice to let go of the past, to grow up, is interesting terrain for a writer and a subject that makes for compelling fiction across genres. The Last Days of Joy has been compared to Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, perhaps because of the New Zealand connection and the fractured family trope, but it is less literary in style than Mason’s Women’s Prize shortlisted novel, and has more in common with the character-driven novels of Irish writers such as Graham Norton, Anne Griffin and Helen Cullen.
As with these writers, Tiernan chooses multiple perspectives – a mother and her three adult children – from which to tell her story of a troubled, dysfunctional family. Joining Sinéad is eldest son Conor, a celebrity charity boss who is about to be cancelled; reliable, neurotic middle child Frances; and their mother Joy, a woman in her late 60s who is first introduced to readers on the morning she attempts to take her own life at her home in Tauranga, a coastal city on New Zealand’s north island.
The Last Days of Joy is a solid debut of fluent prose, discerning insights and colourful characterisation. Each of the siblings is distinctly drawn; Tiernan has a nose for engrossing scenarios that will keep readers turning the pages of this lengthy novel. Bored with her husband Harry, Frances is on the cusp of an affair with an old boyfriend. Conor is dating a woman half his age who appears to have no needs of her own. Sinéad flies back from her adopted home of Ireland to support her siblings, but soon she’s busy plagiarising an obscure novel she finds on her sister’s bookshelf.
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All the while, Joy remains on life support, with little hope of recovery: “One of the consultants told me it’s very rare for a woman to shoot herself. And if they do, it’s often in the stomach.” Stark lines like these appear throughout the book, giving depth and context to the story. Tiernan studied English literature and psychology at Trinity and there is a marked perceptiveness to her writing. Born in Zambia, she grew up in Navan, spent years working in banking and has lived in New Zealand since 2005. She is the sister of the comedian Tommy Tiernan, which is admirably not mentioned in the accompanying press material, though it has been documented by various newspapers. The origins of the novel, according to an author’s note, lie in personal experience.
To Tiernan’s credit, she gives a rounded view of all characters, cleverly withholding details of past traumas until crucial points in the narrative. Joy is presented as a difficult women, but one who is bitterly aware of her own failings as a mother: “As we drive back home in silence I know it would just take a kind word, a simple gesture to fix it. But once again I am struck dumb and paralysed by my own sadness.”
At heart, this is a book about siblings, soldiers who fought the same war and who have emerged as adults with various shades of PTSD
While these interior coma monologues offer perspective, they are also the weakest part of the book, fragmented recollections of a dying woman that have the coherency of dreams and a stagey sentimentality to the voice. Other minor gripes include a one-dimensional, steady-Eddie husband, and dialogue that is a little too glib and snappy to feel real. The siblings have a way of speaking to each other that wouldn’t be out of place in a soap.
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When the glibness is dialled up for effect, however, it works well, as with Frances’ straight-talking friend Lauren: “‘Listen,’ Lauren said to her once, ‘if men got pregnant you could get an abortion at a drive-through.’” She’s also the one to point out that while Frances hasn’t officially cheated with smarmy Andy, she is well on her way: “You’re definitely the type to have an emotional [affair]. At the very least it’s a micro-cheat.”
The novel is full of such astute commentary on relationships, romantic, familial, filial, and above all, fraternal. At heart, this is a book about siblings, soldiers who fought the same war and who have emerged as adults with various shades of PTSD. The Tobin siblings bounce off each other, rile each other, support each other. Their mother, for all her issues, ends up being the one who brings the family together.