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The Amendments by Niamh Mulvey review – a deft saga of Ireland’s evolution

The Amendments by Niamh Mulvey review – a deft saga of Ireland’s evolution

When Nell, a chef, agrees to try for a baby with her partner, Adrienne, a stylist for celebrity food bloggers, she anticipates failed IVF cycles and a financial and emotional toll that will soon nix the plan. Instead, Adrienne conceives after two rounds, and Nell, terrified of looming parenthood, is pitched into a reluctant reckoning with the ghosts of her teenage years in turn-of-the-millennium Ireland. A cult-like Catholic youth movement, denial of her own sexuality, teen pregnancy – all play their part, and yet even this is not the full story.

Having already caught the attention of prize juries with her short fiction, Niamh Mulvey delivers a questing first novel of significant prowess. Its title refers to the fraught changes to Ireland’s abortion legislation and its impact on women’s lives, her exploration of which is deepened by a second narrative strand: the coming-of-age of Nell’s mother, Dolores, on the fringes of the country’s nascent feminist movement in 1980s Dublin.

The splicing of their stories is initially more rewarding thematically than structurally (the book’s start feels a little choppy), but while notionally aligned to opposite sides of the debate on reproductive rights, both women are smart and idiosyncratic, and neither responds predictably to the weighty philosophical and theological debates in which Mulvey’s plot embroils them.

So much is shown to be unsayable in the culture in which Dolores, and later on Nell, is raised. Sex was naturally off limits when the older woman was growing up – it was easier to believe she was conceived by the Holy Spirit than by her parents, she jokes – but religion, until recently all-powerful in Ireland, has become equally discomfiting by the time Nell is of an age to take an interest. In such silences, of course, dangerous secrets fester.

As Mulvey nudges Nell towards finally revealing hers, she touches on complex questions of belonging, freedom and motherhood. Without detracting from its own satisfying ending, The Amendments suggests that the search for answers is an evolving, lifelong undertaking – a gift of a teaching for two heroines whose shared craving for certainty has in the past driven a wedge between them, and perhaps too for readers, buffeted by a polarised culture.

  • The Amendments by Niamh Mulvey is published by Picador (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com