Caroline O’Donoghue has written three novels for adults and a YA series. So far, I’ve read only the second of the adult novels though, based on reviews of the third, I intend to read The Rachel Incident (2023) as soon as I can get it in B-format paperback.

The second adult novel, Scenes of a Graphic Nature (2020), is the first-person narrative of Charlotte Regan, who is just about to turn 29. She has already directed a feature film based on her father’s childhood experiences but her career has stalled and she now works in a coffee shop. She has a side-hustle too, one she’s not keen to publicize.

Charlie’s father, Colm Regan, was born on a small island in County Kerry in the south-west of Ireland; he left there as a teenager in the 1960s, never to go back. He married an Englishwoman and Charlie is their only child. Charlie is very conscious of being half-Irish though, unlike the other people of Irish descent that she was at Catholic school with, she has never visited the country, until her film is selected to be shown at the Cork Film Festival.

It’s while watching the film at the festival, among an audience largely made up of Irish people, that Charlie has what she calls an epiphany: she has made a bad film. It’s bad because it was trying to tell a story whose details she didn’t know, and whose context she didn’t understand. Her film is based on the reminiscences of her father, who was the lone survivor of a school disaster in which 18 young pupils and their teacher were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Colm is now 70 and being treated for cancer. When Charlie leaves for Cork (against her mother’s will), her father has been hospitalized for the third time.

Charlie comes to see that, though she recorded a lot of her father’s memories about the disaster, there were some aspects of the tragedy that he was unwilling or unable to recount. She persuades her friend Laura to skip the festival awards ceremony — their film wasn’t going to win anyway — and travel west to Colm’s birthplace, to try to learn more about the history. Colm had been enthusiastic about her going to Cork, and to Ireland generally, but had tried to discourage her from continuing to the island, which he calls a “miserable old rock”:

“Clipim is three old men with four teeth between them. Trust me. It’s not somewhere you want to visit. You’d only be wasting your time. (p. 31)

When Charlie and Laura get there, Clipim turns out to be more interesting and more lively — if also more dangerous — than Colm’s description has led Charlie to expect. There are two pubs, several shops, a mobile home park, a busy “house-flipper” (p. 117) and, at least during the summer, a thriving tourist business. Oh, and a “button museum” which turns out to have a distressingly sad history.

At first Charlie is given a warm welcome by the older inhabitants of the island, those who remember the school catastrophe and her father’s lucky escape. However, when her stay on the island is extended beyond the initially planned weekend, attitudes change. People who were friendly and welcoming just the day before are now hostile and unforthcoming. Charlie is accused of interrogating a vulnerable, drunken woman, and of gathering material to make a documentary which will disinter traumatic memories best left buried.

Charlie denies that she’s making a documentary, but it’s true that, whether or not she’s fully conscious of the fact, she has been trying to unearth the truth about what happened to her father’s classmates. She realizes that she had, indeed, been looking for the drunken woman to try to get more information out of her, though she doesn’t admit that their earlier conversation was an “interrogation”.

In the end, Charlie learns the whole sad story because she hears it from a man who is slightly younger than her father and remembers him. Joe missed the disaster because he was too young at the time to have started school. In the years since, he has worked out what happened, and he eventually concludes that he’s going to have to explain it to Charlie if she’s to be prevented from insulting and enraging all the older islanders and getting herself lynched.

It’s not as if it’s a great mystery. The truth has remained hidden for 60 years not because it’s complicated or the result of a cleverly woven intrigue but because it’s so appalling that everybody — including Charlie at first — balks at facing it head-on.

It would have been fairly straightforward for O’Donoghue to have Charlie discover the secret as the result of her own investigation. She’s already found old sheets of newspaper in the derelict school building and a photograph in the button museum brochure that tell most of the story. By having another character explain it all to Charlie, O’Donoghue avoids presenting this as a mystery story, a puzzle. To turn it into a whodunnit would be to treat the tragedy less seriously than it deserves.

The publisher’s description on the back of the paperback obscures this aspect of the story. It reads:

Before long, she’s embroiled in a devastating conspiracy that’s been sixty years in the making … and it’s up to her to reveal the truth. (original ellipsis)

But “conspiracy” is highly misleading. It could be argued that there’s been a conspiracy of silence, but it’s not really the case that people have agreed to suppress the knowledge of what happened. Rather, none of them knows exactly what happened because they all know enough to keep their gaze averted.

That template of “knowing not to know” can be discerned in many episodes in recent Irish history. When, in the 1990s, the corruption of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey was finally exposed, we all ruefully agreed that it had always been obvious that his apparent wealth couldn’t be legitimate. The former accountant must have had some clever scheme, too complex to be understood by any but the most financially astute, that regularly topped up his coffers. When the truth was revealed, it turned out to be brazenly straightforward: Haughey had simply demanded large payments from rich businesspeople — and they’d obediently handed the cash over to his bagman.

Similarly, the sexual abuse of children in industrial and other schools and in institutions of the Catholic Church, the effective imprisonment of and extraction of slave labour from “fallen” women in the Magdalene laundries, the unregistered deaths and burial of children in an unmarked mass grave: all of these were able to continue as long as they did because of semiwilful ignorance on the part of the citizenry.

O’Donoghue ingeniously links one of these scandals to the smaller-scale but still devastating Clipim school disaster. The tone of the story, which has seemed lighthearted, at times comic, a bit of a romp — Laura at one point compares their search to a Nancy Drew investigation — has by the end turned distinctly bleak and chilling. O’Donoghue handles the tone shift, which I really wasn’t expecting, very capably.

The book’s other main theme, apart from the partially buried tragedies of recent Irish history, is the changing nature of the friendship between Charlie and Laura. They met at university and the friendship has been close and intense throughout their 20s but that intensity is not going to last forever.

While working on the film — Charlie is credited as director, both of them as producers — they shared a drab, badly heated flat in London. Afterwards, Laura moves in with Mike, who also worked on the film. While they lived together in the flat, they were in the habit of sharing a bed, partly because of the cold. Charlie, a lesbian, doesn’t see anything unusual in this, and Laura doesn’t seem to either, at least at first.

I’d had a crush on her when we first met. Of course I had. But it had waxed and waned accordingly, the way it does when your best friend is beautiful, charismatic and very straight. By the time we were living together, the door in my head marked “Laura” had been closed for so long that it was rusted shut. (p. 56)

On the eve of her moving in with Mike, Laura starts to push tentatively at this rusted door, only to change her mind suddenly and tell Charlie “You need to stop” (p. 58). Charlie doesn’t really know what to make of her friend’s blowing hot and cold. We readers are seeing things only from Charlie’s point of view, and are left to speculate as to why Laura behaves as she does.

It seems likely that Laura wasn’t expecting Charlie’s response to her overtures to be quite so eager or so strong. Perhaps she’s seeing for the first time — and more clearly than Charlie does — the strength of Charlie’s attraction to her, and that this worries her about what she might be getting into. Anyway, it’s from about this time that they begin to “grow apart”. By the time they’ve arrived at the Cork Film Festival, Laura has been offered film-related work in Los Angeles, while Charlie is on the point of realizing that she might not be as talented a film-maker as she had thought and that her future may not be in the film industry after all.

Charlie is in many respects a fish out of water in the unfamiliar rural society. Maria, an American woman who has taken refuge on the island after husband broke her heart and her collarbone while they were on honeymoon in Dublin, has to tell her when the Troubles started. (Some six years after the school tragedy, so the possibility of any IRA involvement in that event can be ignored.) The author is on much surer ground than the character she has created. O’Donoghue was born in Cork and, if I understand correctly, went to university there before moving to London where she has lived for many years, so she’s well placed to see Charlie’s situation from several angles.

In the last 20 years or so there’s been a remarkable increase in the number of Irish women novelists, many of them writing crime or mystery fiction, others about young women making their way in the world, still more about the struggle to escape from the country’s often oppressive past. In this novel, O’Donoghue has combined several of these strands into a novel which is not really a mystery story, not only about a young woman’s journey and in which the shadow of the past doesn’t entirely overpower the other elements. In doing so, she has found a voice that is individual and distinctive. I’m looking forward to hearing more of it.

Edition: Virago paperback, 2021.