Orchid and the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes

Review published on September 6, 2018.

Caoilinn Hughes, the Irish writer of this book, has won many prizes for her poetry, and this love of poetry is obvious in her novel Orchid and the Wasp. Written in an allusive and rich style, the book tells of nine years in the life of Gael, 11 years old in 2002 when we first meet her. She is living in Ireland, a somewhat neglected but affluent childhood with her younger brother, Guthrie, and her often absent parents. Her mother, Sive, is a prominent orchestral conductor and her father, Jarleth, is a banker working in England.

The years 2002 to 2010 are skipped over in an episodic manner and it’s not until the last half of the book, in the year 2011, when Gael is twenty that the story takes on a more uninterrupted style and a plot begins to emerge. This involves not only Gael’s personal life but also the future of her brother.

Although not told in the first person, the book is almost entirely focused on Gael and her point of view, and this was one of the problems of the books for me. She is a very forceful, ambitious and frankly ruthless character and not at all sympathetic or easy to understand. I found many of the minor characters more interesting and would have liked more about them and what they thought, in particular Gael’s artistic but troubled brother, Guthrie, and her mother’s new partner, the solid Yorkshireman, Art.

The book does, however, contain some wonderful short episodes. I particularly enjoyed the description of an encounter when Gael, on a transatlantic flight, gets into conversation with an eighty-three-year-old wealthy American, Wally, and sells him one of Guthrie’s paintings. There are also well drawn portrayals of the much travelled Gael becoming involved in the Occupy movement in New York, and of her time at the London Business School.

I wish I had enjoyed the whole of the book as much as these parts. While admiring the writing, I did find it a struggle to finish as the characters did remain something of a mystery to me. Perhaps it’s a book more for fans of Irish literary fiction.

Sue Glynn 3/4

Orchid and the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes
Oneworld Publications 9781786073655 hbk Jun 2018

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