A Kirkus Best Book of the Year
An Electric Literature Best Book of the Year
A Lithub Best Book of the Year
A searing novel about longing, intimacy and obsession from the award-winning author of Solace.
When they meet in Dublin in the late nineties, Catherine and James become close as two friends can be. She is a sheltered college student, he an adventurous, charismatic young artist. In a city brimming with possibilities, he spurs her to take life on with gusto. But as Catherine opens herself to new experiences, James's life becomes a prison; as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to truly be himself. Catherine, grateful to James and worried for him, desperately wants to help--but as time moves on, and as life begins to take the friends in difference directions, she discovers that there is a perilously fine line between helping someone and hurting him further. When crisis hits, Catherine finds herself at the mercy of feelings she cannot control, leading her to jeopardize all she holds dear.
By turns exhilarating and devastating, Tender is a dazzling exploration of human relationships, of the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we are taught to tell. It is the story of first love and lost innocence, of discovery and betrayal. A tense high-wire act with keen psychological insights, this daring novel confirms Belinda McKeon as a major voice in contemporary fiction, joining the ranks of the masterful Edna O'Brien and Anne Enright.
Release date: February 7, 2017
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 416
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Dreams fled away, and something about a bedroom, and something about a garden, seen through an open window; and a windfall, something about a windfall—a line which made Catherine see apples, bruising and shriveling and rotting into the ground. Windfall-sweetened soil; that was it. And, the flank of an animal, rubbing against a bedroom wall—though that could not be right, could it? But it was in there somewhere, she knew it was; something of it had bobbed up in her consciousness as she lay on the lawn in front of James’s house, a wool blanket beneath her, one arm thrown over her eyes to do the job of the sunglasses she had not thought to bring.
The French windows were open. They were to the left of the front door, which seemed a bit strange, or pointless or something—if you wanted to walk out to the front of the house, wouldn’t you just use the door? Still, they were nice—elegant, that was what they were, and modern—and through them now came the noise of James and his parents, talking in the loud, excited way this family had. His mother shrieked at something James had said, and James swore at her—the fond, gleeful kind of swearing they did all the time, this family; Catherine could not get over them. They were talking, probably, about the local wedding James’s parents were going to that afternoon; James was also expected to go, but James was staying home, using Catherine’s visit as an excuse. Catherine was not sure how she felt about this: a mixture of panic and guilt and flattery, which did not make it easy to relax, lying here in an old bikini belonging to James’s sister, not that the fact of lying here in a bikini made relaxation easy in the first place. If her parents knew…But her parents did not know, she reminded herself once again, and once again she put the thought out of her mind.
Arrah, for fuck’s sake, Mammy. That was James now, really roaring, and next came Peggy, her Cavan accent laying the words down like cards: I’m telling you, Jem, I am telling you. James was a desperate wee shite, that was something else Peggy had said to him a moment ago; Catherine laughed again at the thought of it. Desperate wee shite; she’d say it to him when he came back out here. It would become another of their lines. Already they had their own way of talking, their private phrases, their language, and they’d only known one another since that morning in June; though it seemed like so much longer, it was only six weeks ago that James had shown up in Catherine’s flat on Baggot Street, the flat she shared, during term time, with James’s old schoolfriends, Amy and Lorraine. It was them he had been looking for, of course, when he had arrived that morning, back from his time in Berlin, but instead he had found Catherine, because Catherine had moved into the bedroom he had left empty the previous October. He had been working for a big-shot photographer over there, someone Catherine, at the time, had never even heard of, but someone big, someone with whom James, despite not even being in college, had managed to get himself a job as an assistant—and this was so typical of James, that he could just go and get something for himself in this way, and it was so unthinkable for Catherine, the guts it would involve, or at least it had been, before meeting James…
There, now, was James’s father, wry and lovely and long-suffering, asking James if he would not get back out into the garden and give James’s mother and himself a bit of peace. That lassie, he said—and Catherine knew he was referring to her, and she thrilled to hear herself mentioned—That lassie will be dying of the thirst. Then he added something in a lower tone, inaudible to Catherine, and Peggy shouted his name, sounding outraged, and James told him he was very smart, very fucking smart, and Now for you, James said then, and Catherine knew that he had done something—maybe had clipped his father on the ear, or pretended to, maybe swiped the last piece of ham from his father’s plate. Something, anyway. Some little moment of contact. The previous evening, she had seen James bend down to where his father was sitting at the table and plant on the crown of his head a quick, firm kiss, like a kiss for the head of a baby; just in passing, just as though it meant nothing at all. Catherine had actually blushed. She had felt as though she had done something wrong, something too much, just by having witnessed it. This family. They were just so—they were amazing. They were just brilliant. And it was so strange, because in so many ways they were so much like Catherine’s own family—farmers, the house on the hill, the kitchen smelling of the same things, the bedsheets in the spare room the same sheets that Catherine’s parents had on their bed—and yet, they were so—
Extraordinary. That was what they were. That was a James word; that was one of the words she had got, over this summer, from James. From all the talking they had done, firstly in Dublin, those intense days after he had returned from Berlin, and then—after Catherine had returned to her parents’ home in Longford for the summer and James had reclaimed his old Baggot Street bedroom—over the phone, James had given her so many new ways of saying things, so many closer, sharper, more questioning ways of looking at the world. They had talked on the phone almost every evening this summer; Catherine would call the pay phone in the hallway on Baggot Street, and James would be there waiting with a cheery hello, and they would be off, sometimes for hours, and in those conversations James had given her so much, so many new things to think about. And so many new things to worry about—or, not new things, just things it had never really occurred to her to think about before. Like how little she knew about, well, everything, really. That had been obvious all this past year—college had made that obvious—but James, her conversations with James, had forced her to see it so much more clearly. James had not said this to her directly—James was not like that, not blunt in the way that, say, her classmate Conor was, ripping the piss out of her, making her feel humiliated and small. It was more that in talking to James, listening to him talk, Catherine had come to realize just how much more carefully she needed to think about everything: about her life, about what she was doing with it, about what she was doing at college, about what she was doing with these summer days. About her relationships, of which there were none; Conor was not a relationship, no matter what James said, however often or hilariously—she loved the way he insisted on talking about the dramas of her life as though they were actually interesting, as though there was actually something happening where there absolutely was not. She even loved when he insisted on talking about her relationship with her parents, which was something she had never even thought about in such terms before—she really needed, James had told her, to start thinking about her parents as people, instead of just as her parents—and about the way things were with them, and about how this influenced pretty much everything she did. Psychology; James was not at college, because James, as he had told Catherine that first day in Baggot Street, had not wanted to go to college, had wanted to do something different, had wanted to go his own way, but if James had gone to college, he told her, it was psychology he would have liked to study. That or theology, he had added, and Catherine had burst out laughing, assuming the theology part to be another of his jokes, because he was hardly religious; but James had insisted: he wanted to understand, he said, what it was, exactly, that people believed.
James hardly needed to go to college, anyway; James already seemed to know about everything. Art, obviously; Catherine was a year into a degree that was half art history and he knew ten times more than her. He seemed to know more about her other subject, English, too, though on poetry she thought she had the advantage. But when it came to people and the way they behaved, James could talk for hours, and when it came to other things, too; politics, for instance. One night a couple of weeks previously, Catherine had found herself lying awake for hours, thinking about the North—or rather, thinking about the question of whether, if you talked about the North on the phone—as she and James, or rather James, had for a long time that night—your call was likely to be picked up on, to be noted, along with your name and your whereabouts. Because James had said that this often happened; at the end of the call, James had mentioned, as casually as though it were nothing at all, that he and Catherine were probably on some list now, the two of them, that phone calls all over the country were monitored for conversations just like theirs.
Catherine had rung off as quickly as she could, pleading some obligation or other, and she had sat for a long moment afterwards, staring at the phone, at the cord pulled through from the hall, at the plump, cheerful-looking digits on the buttons, her head feeling as though it was pulsing in and out of something unreal. Then she had gone into the sitting room, where her mother was watching television with Anna, Catherine’s six-year-old sister, and she had been unable even to look at either of them, worrying about what could happen to them now, because of what she and James had done. Which was the height of paranoia, of course it was, but James had had an answer for that too, the next night, when she described to him the stress she had gone through. And it was true. It didn’t make it any less real, all of that; that she thought they were being paranoid didn’t make it any less real at all. Catherine had not been able to change the subject quickly enough, that night, to get onto something that was not dangerous, and she did not want to think about it now, either. She did not want to think about it anytime. She wanted lemonade, which was what James had gone into the house for, glasses of cold lemonade for the two of them, and he would be back out with them now, she thought, squinting up at the sunlight; he would be back out any minute. The glasses would be gorgeously cool, would be glistening with ice, and Catherine would sit up on the blanket to see James as he came towards her from the house, and you desperate wee shite, she would call out to him, and he would pretend to scowl at her, stepping through the metal archway his mother had set down at the edge of the lawn. Roses—or at least Catherine thought they were roses—were trained up the archway, a vivid red against the paintwork, and now she heard him; she heard, close to the patio door and now coming across the driveway, his footsteps, and yes, there it was, the ice, the clinking, and Catherine clenched all the muscles of her arms and her shoulders and her thighs, just for the pleasure of it, just for the loveliness of releasing them again, stretching out on the blanket so that her fingers and toes touched the grass now, its cool, clipped pile. She sighed, as the sun bleached white the world shut out by her eyelids, and once again she tried to train her vision—was it still vision if your eyes were closed?—on one of the tiny black floaters swirling in and out of view. But there was no holding them; they came and went like birds.
This was her second day in Carrigfinn.
* * *
James’s hair had grown over the summer; it rose in an unruly quiff over his forehead. He had the reddest hair of any boy Catherine had ever known, which was probably down to the fact that, until James, she had had such a dislike of red-haired boys that she had not even wanted to look at them, let alone talk to them. They made her think of misery, somehow; of small houses and V-neck jumpers and of that helpless, defeated look that came over the faces of some children in primary school when the teacher was humiliating them and there was nothing the child could say or do to change this. She had not articulated this to James, actually, this association; she thought now, as she watched him duck down under the archway of roses, that she must say it to him, that he would find it fascinating, would find it, probably, quite clever, quite funny. Analyzing it, picking it apart, he would make it, of course, much funnier still. And what’s so offensive about V-neck jumpers? she imagined him asking, and she laughed in anticipation of it, hugging herself a little with the pleasure of it, so that James looked at her suspiciously now, his lips pursed in a manner that set her laughing harder still. He was so funny, James; it was probably the thing that was most brilliant about him. He was funnier than anyone she’d ever met. Everything about him was so lit up by this brilliant, glinting comedy; he was so quick, and such a good mimic—so good it was almost disturbing, sometimes—and he had this gift for getting right to the truth about people with a single, seemingly casual line. And he was so loud, and he cared nothing for what other people thought of him; more than once during those first days in Dublin, Catherine had cringed at the attention paid to them by people on the street as James, marching along beside her, had held forth energetically on whatever was grabbing—seizing—his attention at that moment. Passersby had glanced at him, or stared at him, or raised a withering eyebrow in his direction, but James never seemed to notice; he just charged on. It had been the same, even, in Carrick the previous evening, as he and Catherine had walked from the train station towards the road for Carrigfinn. No thought to who might be listening. No care for who might say he was a right dose, a right pain in the head, that Flynn fella with the hill of red hair. Even as they thumbed a lift, then—Catherine feeling ill with nerves in case they might be seen by someone who could report back to her parents—James had had her in stitches, and when they finally got a lift, from two old women who were neighbors of James’s parents—two old women who made sure to get a good look at Catherine, as the girl James Flynn was bringing home—it had actually hurt, the effort of keeping the laughter in. James, all the way home, had stayed straight-faced, keeping up a jolly, newsy patter with the two women, gossiping with them about other neighbors, agreeing with their assessments and their complaints; but the whole time, he had been kicking Catherine’s foot, trying to make her laugh, alerting her to intimations, innuendoes, in the things he was saying. Catherine had barely been able to breathe by the time the car had left them at the bottom of the lane.
Catherine was back in Longford until October partly because she had got a summer job—at the local newspaper, where she spent her time making press releases look like news stories—but mostly because her parents wanted her home for the summer, because her parents did not see any reason for her to stay in Dublin when she did not need to go to classes or to the library. When she had been going to Dublin in the first place, her parents had wanted Catherine to move in with her father’s sister in Rathmines, rather than get a place with friends from school, and when the place with those friends had fallen through in Freshers’ Week, a year of living with her aunt Eileen had seemed unavoidable, but then on the student-union notice board, Catherine had seen an ad for a room on Baggot Street, and had scribbled down the number, and that number had led her to Amy and Lorraine. They were also first years at Trinity, but studying science subjects rather than arts, and this guy James had gone to Berlin just before the October rent had been paid, and so they needed, badly needed, someone new for his room. Would Catherine be interested? She said yes, her heart racing, and she moved in that evening. They were from Leitrim; that was the detail she used as a bargaining chip with her mother, or as a kind of security clause; Leitrim, after all, was a neighboring county to Longford, so it was almost as though she was living with people from home; it was not as though she was moving in with Dublin people, or with English people—or with boys. To Catherine’s amazement, her mother had agreed reluctantly, and had said that she would come up with some way of explaining it to Catherine’s father, and Catherine had spent a happy year living with the girls, who were such fun, and so easygoing, and who treated the flat as a home, not just as somewhere to stay a couple of nights a week before going home again for the weekend. They were both up there for the summer, of course, and she envied them so much, getting to live with James; she envied them even the month they had lived with him before she knew any of them, even the years when they had all been together at secondary school. How could you envy a time of which you could not possibly have been a part? And yet she did. She looked at James now, as he knelt beside her on the blanket, passing her a glass of lemonade. It was cool and solid in her hand.
“You’re going to burn,” she said, her gaze on his bare arms.
“We’re all going to burn, Catherine,” he said sternly. “Sure look at the getup of you, sitting out where decent people can see you, and your naked body on display.” He shook his head. “Pat Burke is watching, Catherine. Pat Burke is scandalized, that’s what he is.”
“Oh, shut up about that old bastard,” Catherine said, taking a mouthful of lemonade.
“Chin-chin,” James said, making it sound somehow like a warning, and he clinked his glass against hers. He drank deeply and looked down the hill to the canal. A boat, a small cruiser, was moving away from the lock. Catherine could hear the noise of the gates as they closed again.
“That’s right,” James shouted down in the boat’s direction, although there was no way the people could hear, and, quite apart from that, he had no idea who they were. “Bate on now, ye fuckers! We don’t want your type around here!”
“You’re terrible, Muriel,” Catherine said, which was one of the lines which had become theirs over the past few weeks; it was from a film they both loved. You’re terrible, Muriel. The right way to say it was in an Australian accent, with a wide-eyed expression of shock and dismay, but Catherine was too hot and lazy to bother just now, and anyway, James, attempting to squeeze onto the blanket beside her, was not even listening.
“Shove over, Reilly,” he said; they were shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. The physical contact was a jolt for Catherine; her mind was casting about frantically for a way to break what she felt to be the tension of the moment. But her mind could not be trusted; her mind responded to the request to divert attention from his body by dumping attention onto it even more crudely than if she had reached out and stroked it from top to toe.
“Your skin,” she said, her voice sounding weird and insistent. “Your skin will be destroyed in this sun. You need some cream for it. You need to rub in some of that cream your mother gave you.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” James grunted. “That stuff is ancient. You’d be as well off covering yourself with jam.”
“Well, I have it on, and I’m not burning.”
Which had been another stupid thing to say, because now James was up on one elbow, peering at her body, taking it all in: her bare thighs, her stomach, her cleavage, such as it was in this ridiculous eighties bikini. She felt an impulse to wrap herself, hide herself, in the blanket. James was really staring at her now; she tried to laugh, but it came out as a gasp.
“You’re turning blue, Catherine,” James said, settling down again as though this was nothing. “You look like you’re coming down with cholera. It must be something in the cream.”
“What?” Catherine said in another gasp, and she sat up in a rush, stretching her arms out in front of her. Instantly she saw that he was not serious, that this was just another of his jokes, and he was convulsed with laughter beside her now, but still she found herself making a show of checking herself—stomach, thighs, calves, and then she lifted her hips and examined what she could see of her arse cheeks, for good measure. There was no blueness, obviously; her freckled skin stared back at her, still bright with the sheen of the lotion, the tiny fair hairs shining in the sun.
“Fucker,” she said, shoving James.
“Ha ha,” he half sang, one minor chord following another, and he did not even open his eyes. She thought about doing something to him, something to get revenge on him; she wanted something, she realized, to make him sharply aware of her again, even though she had been wishing for just that kind of awareness to slide away from her only a moment ago. The cold lemonade, maybe, all over his T-shirt and onto his rolled-up jeans; all down his long, thin legs, over his knobbly feet, white and uncallused and naked. Or maybe a couple of ice cubes, tipped out of her glass and slapped onto the exposed length of his throat, gone down under his collar before he had the chance to realize what it was she had in her hand.
“Reilly,” James said, in a drowsy undertone, and he let the back of one hand flop onto her stomach before taking it away again. “You’re blocking my sun.”
* * *
Pat Burke; it was extraordinary how red-faced, horrible old Pat Burke had become one of the private jokes between her and James, one of their lines, but he had. Pat Burke this, Pat Burke that. Pat Burke is watching; Oh, that’s one for Pat Burke, now; Good God, Catherine, what would Pat Burke say? His name was shorthand for pretended moral indignation, and Catherine loved it, though when they used it she always felt, at the same time, the quickened heartbeat of guilt and of unease at doing something at which her parents would be so horrified. Burke was recovering from a heart attack the previous summer, and on the first Friday of every month he still had to take the train to Dublin for treatment; each time, he came back with a store of gossip about other Longford people who had been heading up to the city and coming home again. At the bar in Leahy’s, he would unveil the tasty particulars of what he had seen and heard: the shoppers, the holidaymakers, the sibling-visitors, the ashen people facing tests and diagnoses and tubes and machines; the goners, the chatters, the chancers. And in the city itself, and in the train station, there was also so much to see, which was how on the first Friday in June, Pat Burke happened upon a great morsel, which was the sight of young Reilly, Catherine or whatever her name was, Charlie Reilly’s eldest girl, sitting on a bench in the middle of the day, holding hands with some young fella, a huge haystack of red hair on him, bold as brass and without a whit of concern for whoever might be looking their way.
They had not been holding hands. They had been sitting on one of the wooden benches in the gloomy space facing the train platforms, and their heads had been close together, each of them with a hand up to an ear. And yes, maybe, Catherine thought afterwards, maybe their hands had been touching, because they had been listening to her headphones; she had wanted James to hear the Radiohead song she loved, the miserable, beautiful one from OK Computer. Catherine had been taking the train back to Longford for the summer, and James had insisted on walking her to the train station, and she had been feeling sad and shaky at the prospect of leaving him—Longford was over two hours from Dublin, and it was unlikely that she would be back up very much during the summer—and shaky, too, at the fact of this, at the fact of this all having come upon her so quickly—three days previously, she had never even met him—and at the fact of it rattling her, now, so deeply, and embarrassed by it, and confused—and worse still, she knew that James was feeling sad about their parting also, because he had told her, and because, in fact, he kept saying so, and Catherine had no idea what to do with this, how to take this, this openness, this unbothered honesty, which seemed to cost him nothing—no blushing, no shiftiness in his eyes or around his mouth—and yes, the fact was, their hands had been touching, or more like their wrists, the press of his wrist and the press of hers, skin against skin, bone against bone, and it was so strange, it had struck her, that a wrist could be such a boring part of someone and yet so massively, overwhelmingly them. And the grim lament of “Exit Music (For A Film)” plunged into this feeling so perfectly, so intimately, that she felt weird about sharing it with him, actually; felt as though it might be saying something somehow dangerous, and the fact that he was nodding, that he was closing his eyes, offered no comfort to her, no breeze of reassurance, and then Thom Yorke was droning, telling someone to breathe, and in that moment Catherine glanced up for some reason, and there, in front of her, was that old weirdo Pat Burke from home, wearing a black suit and a black tie as though he was coming from a funeral, a splattering of small silver badges on his right lapel, and he gave Catherine a wink; a slow, delighted wink.
“Hi, Mr. Burke,” Catherine said before she could stop herself, her head jerking upwards, which caused James to jolt beside her and follow her gaze.
“Miss Reilly,” Burke said with heavy emphasis, as though he was a butler announcing her arrival to a room, and with a little bow and a long look at James—a look, Catherine thought, that was more like a leer—he walked away.
“Who the fuck was that?” James said, taking the headphone from his ear and watching as Burke made for the Sligo train.
“A neighbor,” Catherine said. Her heart was thumping; the blush was searing itself into her cheeks, postponed by the shock but coming on fully now.
“He looked like he was coming to claim your soul.”
“Don’t look at him.”
“We hope—that you choke—that you cho-o-oke,” James sang in a low, rasping whisper, and Catherine elbowed him.
“Stop,” she said. “It’s bad enough.”
James snorted. “What’s bad enough? Those trousers? Did you see the state of them? The arse like an old turf bag.”
“It’s just bad enough,” Catherine said, and she lowered her head to indicate that she was giving all her attention, again, to the song.
Sure enough, two mornings later, which was Catherine’s first summer Sunday at home, she noticed her mother looking at her awkwardly, in the way that meant she had something to say. Catherine braced herself. She was sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl of Cornflakes and Coco Pops mixed together the way she liked them. It was after eleven, and because she had not dragged herself out of bed earlier, she would now have to go with her father to one o’clock Mass; the others had already been. Catherine had been out the night before, in Fallon’s and then on to Blazer’s with some of the girls she had known in school, but it had been the usual shit: bumping into people she never saw anymore, and having bitty conversations with them, and then worrying whether her ID would be enough to get her into the club—it was just her luck that now that she had finally turned eighteen, all the clubs in town had adopted an over-nineteens policy, and getting in depended on whether you knew the bouncer, or on whether he decided he fancied you, or on whether you could plead with him, as Catherine had eventually had to do the night before, pointing out to him that she wasn’t even drunk, that she could never get properly drunk in Longford, because her father always insisted on collecting her, no matter how late she was out—parking, sometimes, right outside the nightclub door. She reckoned the bouncer had felt sorry for her; that that was why he had let her in. Certainly he had looked at her, just before nodding her through, with something like pity in his eyes.
And then Blazer’s had been rubbish, as usual. Cringey dancing to songs from Trainspotting; girls who’d been in her Science and Geography classes trying to look like they were off their heads on E when all they’d had was eight bottles of Mug Shot. Clodhopper morons asking if you wanted a shift, the saliva already flecking and bubbling at the corners of their mouths. Anyone half-decent-looking already getting the face worn off them in a corner, and David Donaghy, who’d ignored Catherine’s attentions on the school bus from September 1991 to June 1996, ignoring her all over again, and then shifting Lisa Mulligan, who Catherine was pretty sure was his second cousin. Catherine’s old schoolfriend Jenny screaming, “You need to get pissed!” at her, over and over, and then falling asleep slumped against the mirrored walls, and then shifting David Donaghy when his cousin was finished with him. Two o’clock could not come quickly enough. Catherine had almost been glad of the sight of her father’s Sierra pulled up tight to the steps at the front.
But then he had been silent all the way home, so Catherine knew that Burke had said something to him. There was no danger of her father raising the subject with her himself—the rules might come from him, but that did not mean that he had to articulate them, at least not with Catherine and Ellen, and definitely not when they related, in even the most peripheral of ways, to what Catherine and Ellen might get up to with boys—but in the morning, Catherine’s mother would pause at the kitchen counter, just as she was pausing now, and she would glance in Catherine’s direction, and she
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