- 08 Aug 18
When Caoilinn Hughes set out to write Orchid And The Wasp, her mammoth story of a young woman, Gael Foess, trying to emerge from the rubble of the 2007-'08 financial crash, she was resolute that it wasn't going to be a coming-of-age story.
"I knew I wanted to be ambitious with this book, and I wanted to write something that wasn't at all formulaic," she tells Hot Press, speaking from Brooklyn, whence she's currently promoting the book in the States. "You often find with your first novel that you have a tendency to write the coming of age story, to write something that could've been reverse-engineered for a fiction-for-dummies manual. So with this, I wanted to not know what kind of a structure it would take. I wanted to have the character, then to allow the story to become what it wanted to become."
Orchid And The Wasp is the antithesis of the Irish coming-of-age story. Far removed from the tale of a young girl learning Catholic guilt before shrugging it off, Hughes upended it right from the first page, where she has Gael encouraging her fellow 11-year-old friends to break their own hymens so that they can be in control of their early sexuality.
"I wanted to write someone who didn't have a heart of gold," explains the author. "Gael wasn't going to be a Polly Anna character. Because it occurred to me that there are just so few female protagonists where the engine of the narrative is coming from the female protagonist herself, not from the relationships, not from anything external. If you do have that - you just have that Polly Anna character. So I wasn't trying to make her unlikeable, she was going to be as unlikeable as her actions would make her.
"Part of it was having this type of character where there wouldn't be a love story driving the narrative, and I wouldn't show her trauma - because that also seems problematic to me; that, when you do have a strong, fractious unlikeable character, they're given a bunch of trauma to qualify it. I grew up with a lot of fractious, unlikeable male characters - Hamlet, Dorian Gray, Frankenstein - where you're interested in the character, just the character, and the author doesn't need to explain or qualify it."
In the novel itself, Gael is presented as someone whose goals are never quite clear, but who has an insatiable ambition and is very good at getting what she wants. She attempts to rapidly climb the artistic, economic and social ladders in both New York and London, with some vague idea of rescuing her family back at home from a morally bankrupt system. The main dilemma is that, much like her successful banker father - who abandons Gael's family when she's a teenager - she's almost too good at working her way through the system. The reasons behind a lot of her actions are hard to justify. The way she can love her sensitive artist brother one moment before cynically forging his work for profit the next. At every step, she seems to want to justify her means for the sake of an end that only becomes less clear and less attainable.
If Hemingway had written the same type of character as a male, it's likely that he'd have been read and no one would've batted an eyelid. But make her a young, female character from Ireland and it's a divisive thing...
"The initial reader responses were from people who weren't ready for the character," Caoilinn tells me. "A lot of readers get angry at the book because they don't like Gael. They're angry that she's smart when she's young, they're angry that she has these lewd scenes with other characters (11-year-old Gael has a frank conversation with her father about divorce after witnessing him masturbate in the shower).
"They're angry that they can't forgive her if they can't tell if she has good intentions or not. The pressure is oppressive - to have these women characters that are relatable. So that even if they do misbehave, they're supposed to be met with a comeuppance. It's an extremely difficult moment to witness so many women, and men, but particularly women, not see how their own needs for female characters are different from how characters are, in general."
Was there a sense that people wanted a female character who was an ally?
"That's really interesting," she considers. "The book is following someone who in some sense is ambitious, but there's no room for her ambition in this late-capitalist moment. You have to be after money or power, as defined by the system at the moment. And she's discovering that if you're privileged enough, those things are achievable, but not in a way that's laudable or ideologically consistent. So where does ambition sit? You're trying to be ambitious but you don't want to play into the system.
"It's also interesting because I wrote this before Trump was elected, but you can see the fallacy of meritocracy in the book, and that's become even more prevalent. But yes, I think people wanted her to be more of a Panglossian character."
The novel also has a Franzen-esque flair for showing the interconnectedness of western society. How one trip and wobble of the US housing market can ripple into the heart of Irish society. Orchid And The Wasp is, aside from anything else, a powerful glimpse of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.
"The Celtic Tiger was very much part of it," Caoilinn affirms. "The fall of the Celtic Tiger was interesting for the way that this character understands how the world works. Because there was an onus taken on by Irish people, after the crash, and there was very much a sense of cultural acknowledgement of our own involvement and complicity. You know, "I should have known not to re-mortgage my house to buy that other property". This thing that, yes, the banks were to blame because they facilitated it, but we should've learnt where we came from. We should've learnt humility. We should've remembered how Ireland was 50, 70 years ago. And everyone, I think, was working through this on a spiritual level. That's what I think was unique with Ireland at that time.
"A lot of Ireland's wealth came from setting corporate tax rate in the '90s. So it's always had that systemic problem of being a corporatocracy and being vulnerable to corporate influence. But I do think part of the disappointment that fuels Gael is how quickly Ireland fell back into its consumerist ways. How quickly it fell back into a passive way of being. I think those years after the crash weren't years where we took action to ensure the integrity of our social and political systems for the future."
Orchid And The Wasp is out now, published by One World.