Review: Ordinary Human Failings, Megan Nolan

Published in The Observer on July 2, 2023

Megan Nolan’s lauded debut novel, which excavated with painful precision the interior life of a young woman beholden to a toxic partner, was called Acts of Desperation. Her follow-up could share the same title: in Ordinary Human Failings, the Irish-born, London-based author and journalist proves desperation is her special subject.

Her canvas, however, is considerably wider this time – a welcome development – and Nolan paints a horribly compelling, more narrative-driven tale. It begins in 90s London with a young tabloid journalist, Tom, who craves a good story at any cost while expressing contempt for the “peasants” who read his rag. He is first on the scene when a toddler goes missing from an estate and sniffs a potentially huge story. Local gossip quickly lays the blame at the feet of a 10-year-old girl, Lucy, member of the mysteriously troubled, benefit-claiming Green family, who arrived from Ireland and have never fitted in.

When the infant is found dead, Lucy is taken into police custody. Tom’s newspaper sets the Greens up in a hotel, supposedly for their safety – but really so he can ply them with booze, winkle out their secrets and scandalise the country with tales of the monsters who raised a murderous child.

As a device for telling multiple backstories, you can sometimes feel the gears turning, as the focus shifts to Waterford (Nolan’s hometown) and the thwarted lives of the Green family members. But Nolan’s telling of their stories is page-turning and written with aching, compassionate insight. Each account leaves your heartstrings taut as cheese wire.

A novel that initially resembles a satire of a nasty media circus, or a We Need to Talk About Kevin-style consideration of what breeds “evil”, becomes a deep dive into an averagely unhappy family. Primarily, this is the tale of Carmel, Lucy’s mother, and her journey through a secret teenage love affair, a dissociated refusal to accept her pregnancy and a depressive struggle with unwanted motherhood. She is a flickering character; proud and strong in her refusal to be defined by her mistakes, but weak in her ability to face reality. Descriptions of her attempt at a DIY abortion, and her mental gymnastics when it fails, are strikingly vivid.

Despite this being a relatively slim book, Nolan also accommodates tightly bound tales of the rest of the Greens: of Carmel’s saintly, dutiful late mother, Rose, and her marriage to the withdrawn, hard-drinking John – a man who never recovered from humiliation in a previous marriage. Most excruciating is the story of the son from that union: the lonely, alcoholic Richie, who drinks to try to feel connected but only succeeds in pushing life away.

For the tabloid’s purposes, though, the family’s troubles are not dramatic enough to make a compelling origins story; not traumatic enough to explain why a child might kill. Nolan denies Tom the satisfaction of a big reveal or shocking twist. What she invites the reader to see, instead, is that even very ordinary human failings – the ability to make mistakes; the inability to communicate or ask for help – can fill a life with existential despair.

Still, the book begins with Tom’s perspective: his ambition and anxiety, his charm and cynicism. One minor gripe would be that while the future lives of the Green family members are hinted at towards the end, the equally interesting Tom simply slips away. Perhaps he just moves on, unaffected; perhaps, as Carmel thinks to herself, he “didn’t understand and would never feel the consequences of” the cruelty of his job, insulated by power and money. But early on, Nolan hints at a character too intelligent for that, and Tom is plagued by self-loathing. When he can’t stop the phrase “I’m the loneliest man in the world!” from “screaming” round his brain, he foreshadows the isolation that also defines each of the Greens. It’s clear that his work – hateful as it may be – is his own act of desperate distraction. I wondered what became of him, too.

Where next?