The heart of Suzy Suzy is Suzy herself, a teenager in her final year of secondary school. She speaks in what is rapidly becoming a new dialect of Hiberno-English, heavily influenced by the internet, by television, especially American television, by text-speak, but also by the underlying exigencies of English as spoken in Ireland with its rich background in Gaelic construction. I experimented with the style in a previous short story collection.
I think of Suzy and her friends as speaking a strange kind of dialect poetry:
'Holly goes: Why didn’t you tell me? And I said: Because I’m afraid. She said: Afraid of me? And I’m like: No, I’m afraid of what’s happening to me. And she had no answer to that because now she was afraid too. Holly had an answer to everything when we were small.'
Suzy is an almost-innocent lost in the process of growing up in a family that is struggling to come to terms with, among other things, the collapse of her father’s business. I loved writing her mordant wit, her vulnerability, her warm heart, her intelligence and ultimately her strength.
Holly is her closest friend, and the political chorus of the book. Serena is the daughter of a pro-Life eye-surgeon who cannot see how his child is suffering. These three are the nucleus, brought together in school by their intelligence. In Ireland education is not as stratified by class as in some other countries, especially outside the cities. All classes come together in Suzy’s ex-convent school.
For years I’ve wanted to write a companion book to my 2005 Booker longlisted This Is The Country. That book satirised the so-called Celtic Tiger which was in full swing at that time (the crash came three years later), and I wanted to write a crash-novel. Suzy Suzy is the result. In This Is The Country Ireland’s native form of casino capitalism is represented by the drugs business, whereas Suzy Suzy is about people and the property they own.
There are other social issues to consider, and inevitably many of them have been overtaken by events. The campaigning of Serena’s pro-life father may now be viewed with wry satisfaction as the last sting of a dying wasp. Ireland has moved on. There’s hope too – against racism and against homophobia. Suzy and her friends belong to a generation that will, I believe, leave these forms of discrimination behind. Other problems remain of course:
'Imagine you’re a seventeen-year-old boy in football shorts walking down a dark road at night. It’s a country road. Cars are passing on their way home from the pub. Now imagine you’re a girl in a miniskirt.'
The crash comes to Suzy’s family but not in the way it would have affected the protagonist of This Is The Country. No one is made destitute here, education goes on and work still exists despite losses. This is the middle class.
On the writing of my novel Suzy Suzy
The Irish Times
“My mam doesn’t really look at my dad any more. Like maybe she never did idk but she doesn’t now. I don’t know if she doesn’t want to see him or she can’t see him or just to her he’s not there. But every time I see her not looking at him it hurts me. She looks at me all right. She hates me.”
Suzy Regan is a world-weary 17-year-old Dubliner, consumed with self-loathing and an intense dislike of her dysfunctional family. Her heightened teenage emotions oscillate wildly from occasional joy to more frequent despair. Suzy says she wants to kill her mother: “she has like two registers, as my English teacher would say, normal and ballistic”; a woman who finds her daughter equally exasperating: “Sometimes I can see my mother is going to hit me but she stops herself. Like there’s a little tick of bones and muscles and a change in the way her hands and her body are tilted. . .”
The book is set in post Celtic Tiger Ireland, where Suzy’s property developer dad is another source of constant irritation and anxiety, with his unpaid taxes and thickening arteries: “We even debated the housing crisis in religion class . . . and I think maybe my dad is causing it. Like single-handedly causing the shortage because he owns like everything almost.”
William Wall is a multi-award-winning author, poet and translator, who first took up writing as a young boy when confined to bed with painful juvenile arthritis. He frequently tells his stories through strong female voices; he uses it as a distancing technique, as a way of keeping himself out of his books, and as a means of maintaining objectivity. Power has always fascinated Wall, and particularly people excluded from power. Drawn, like many writers, to describing outsiders, Wall sees women as having been (and possibly continuing to be) the submerged population.
Wall feels quite assured writing as a woman, and with good reason. His insights into the internal world of a teenage girl are remarkable – the crashing boredom, the vulnerability, the drama of her days and her moods (making liberal use of capital letters throughout the text to demonstrate these emotions) and the virtual world she spends much of her time in. Suzy Suzy comes complete with a glossary of teenage terminology and abbreviations to help the adult reader navigate a teenager’s life and mind. Wall captures so accurately Suzy’s anxiety of seeing her parents not getting along, the doll’s house fragility of the world around her as it begins to implode, the shouting and the more disturbing silence:
“I was supposed to feel safe and secure because the house IS FULL OF F**KING SECRETS. Jesus wept twice. It’s like we’re the f**king government except there’s no WikiLeaks. Or a secret society. A Regan NEVER TALKS.”
Suzy feels isolated and begins to cut herself with her big brother’s razors, but she confides in two close girlfriends whom she has known since primary school: Holly, who’s “a dote” and whose “eyes glow like the stuff inside a seashell idk some kind of pearl” and Serena, whom she doesn’t entirely trust and has a figure that is “perf” but a smile that “is the smile of a dead pollock. It just doesn’t work.”
The three girls are drawn into trying to solve a murder that centres on the new owners of local stately home Ballyshane House (which her father has wanted to purchase for as long as Suzy can remember), all the while navigating the miseries of secondary school, a country and a family in crisis, secrets and affairs, and Suzy’s father’s failing health and financial troubles.
“My dad’s heart attack went well. Or so I believe. He got a stent and they told him to stay away from work for a while. Which He Did Not Do.”
Wall has a horror of sentimentality. He describes himself “as not being a kind and gentle writer”. His prose is beautifully lyrical and rhythmic, his sentences clean, every word weighed. In Suzy he has created a vulnerable and unwittingly hilarious central character whose voice, as it propels us through sinister events, is every bit as powerful and plausible as D. B. C. Pierre’s Vernon in Vernon God Little or Francie Brady’s in The Butcher Boy.
Suzy Suzy is everything a great book should be – humorous, poignant and utterly original. With a wickedly funny central character, a gripping and propulsive plot, several unsolved mysteries and real-life, ragged endings, this is the sort of book that readers will be immediately absorbed by and which writers, like this one, can only admire and learn from.
EVERYTHING A GREAT BOOK SHOULD BE
JULIA KELLY (Irish Times, May 4th 2019)
Book of the month for November 2019 at the Rick O'Shea Book Club