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Megan Nolan’s ‘Acts of Desperation’: a labour for love

Book: Acts of Desperation

Author: Megan Nolan

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Reviewer: Caoimhe White

Release Date: March 4 2021

Pages: 288

ISBN: 9781787333369

Price: €16.95 / £14.99

There is an edge to the first conversation between the unnamed narrator of Acts of Desperation and Ciaran, the novel’s beautiful but callous love interest. Even in this first glimpse into their relationship, the reader is privy to their dynamic: his cold superiority, her willing submissiveness. What follows is a meticulous examination by Megan Nolan of obsessive and destructive love.

Nolan’s rendering of obsession immerses the reader in her narrator’s dire need for love to the point where the reading experience itself becomes addictive: taking a break feels like coming up for air only to find that there is somehow less oxygen in the room.

Just as with addiction, when the going is good, it’s really good. Nolan’s writing is perceptive during the mellow days of the narrator’s domestic union with her college friend; later, it’s incisive in its excavation of the narrator’s motivations: ‘anti-depressants come and go, making little difference either way to the fact that my reaction to all of life…is so often: So? And then, whenever I fall in love, everything is made new, including myself’.

This unadorned style gives the many descriptions of self-destruction – from overindulgence in drink to self-harm – a quiet dignity, as if to say: yes, there is horror in these truths, but dressing them up won’t make them any less horrible. This is exemplified in Nolan’s sustained dedication to crafting a nuanced portrait of the book’s relationship: she rejects the easy allocation of blame, placing Ciaran’s harrowing behaviour alongside the narrator’s complicity in her own debasement. Here is a writer attuned to gendered power plays, comfortable with sparking them off each other and watching for the fallout.

These highs must come hand in hand with the lows of Acts of Desperation: the novel feels repetitive, continuously relaying variations on the themes of caustic love and punitive sex. But that’s also the point: the narrator’s relationship is overwhelming and all-encompassing, repetitive in its toxic patterns. To remove the focus from these themes would be to lessen their impact on the reader.

Despite its confronting subject matter and Nolan’s unflinching devotion to hard truths, the novel maintains its immersive quality throughout. There may be less oxygen in the room when the reader comes up for air, but it is impossible not to return for more, shallow breath and all.

Acts of Desperation can be purchased from the Gutter Bookshop here.