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Evenings and Weekends by Oisín McKenna review – a love letter to London under pressure

Evenings and Weekends by Oisín McKenna review – a love letter to London under pressure

London has long been both literary character and setting, showing its many different faces in fiction from Oliver Twist to Mrs Dalloway, Zadie Smith’s NW to Andrew O’Hagan’s newly published Caledonian Road. Now Evenings and Weekends, the debut novel from an Irish spoken-word artist and playwright, captures its heady spirit during a heatwave in 2019, giving voice to the dilemmas of 30-year-old Londoners navigating queer identity, financial precarity and emotional commitment.

Set largely over one sweltering June weekend, this vivid realist novel adroitly manoeuvres a sprawling interlocking cast around the hipster haunts of north and east London, including Kingsland Road, London Fields and the Hampstead Heath swimming ponds. Shifting between multiple perspectives, Oisín McKenna interweaves individual and collective experience and anthropomorphises the city as “a body under stress, drenched in sweat and panting”.

His electric, broadbrush vignettes of urban life recall Kae Tempest’s novel The Bricks That Built the Houses and Vivian Gornick’s memoirs. Like Tempest, another spoken-word artist, McKenna’s language is intensely sensory. Prone to lists and poetic repetitions, he prioritises rhythm and flow over the avoidance of cliche: Dalston Superstore seems like “heaven on earth”. Some phrases are surprisingly awkward and pedestrian: “the pong of weed is general”.

Yet his intimate prose plunges you into his characters’ psyches as each confronts a turning point. Maggie is 12 weeks pregnant and planning to give up her artsy London life for suburban heteronormativity with her boyfriend, Ed, a cycle courier with a secret. Maggie’s best friend, Phil, is in love with his housemate, Keith, but he’s just a sideshow in Keith’s open relationship. Callum, Phil’s brother, is getting married, but he’s far from sorted. A drug dealer prone to benders, he’s upset about his mum, Rosaleen. Meanwhile, Rosaleen is trying to tell Phil about her cancer diagnosis. Through their stories, the novel explores the difficulty of bridging the gap between our inner lives and the facade we present to the world, and of connecting across generational and emotional divides.

A public drama unfolds alongside these private ones: a whale has washed up on Bermondsey beach, fast becoming an internet sensation (the incident is clearly inspired by the three whales that beached in London in 2019). As the characters visit, discuss and project themselves on to it, the whale forms a focal point, connecting the dots between individual and shared experience.

Evenings and Weekends arrives on the heels of Keiran Goddard’s I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning, which traces the effect of dwindling opportunity on young working-class lives; economic necessity and life’s momentum have forced both novels’ characters to set aside their dreams. Meanwhile, Holly Pester’s recent The Lodgers explores the impact of the housing crisis. In Evenings and Weekends, Maggie and Ed must endure a damp problem to afford Dalston, so asthmatic Ed wheezes as he works. Phil has found a community in the mouldy Bermondsey warehouse he shares with 11 others, but they “could be evicted at a moment’s notice”. These characters are not 22, but around 30. Rather than feeling excited about the baby, Maggie can only “shudder in shame at how ill-equipped she was to give a stable future to herself, let alone anyone else”.

McKenna has a knack for pathos and doesn’t shrink from tugging on heartstrings, particularly in the case of Rosaleen, whose Dublin upbringing in a poor Catholic family, self-doubt and habit of self-repression have hobbled her ability to express herself. The mundanity of her interactions with her husband and the banality of her Instagram post in Westfield are so poignant that they border on pitying.

Phil’s storyline captures the longing and marginalisation of growing up gay in suburban Basildon, dreaming of escape. In his moving depiction of out and closeted LGBTQ+ characters struggling with their relationships, traumas and the precariousness of their own freedom, McKenna has created a tender portrait of contemporary queer London.

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For even as it utters a howl of rage at broken, late-capitalist Britain, Evenings and Weekends is a love letter to the city – the chance it offers to forge your own identity, and the interconnectedness of urban life. Evoking the carefree summer before lockdown, it bottles the exhilaration of youthful desire and possibility, as well as the accompanying instability.

Source: theguardian.com