Ordinary Human Failings 
by Megan Nolan.
Cape, 218 pp., £16.99, July, 978 1 78733 250 8
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Tom Hargreaves​ , the anti-hero of Megan Nolan’s second novel, is young, bland-faced and good at ingratiating himself in places he doesn’t belong. A journalist for the Daily Herald, he reflexively imagines tabloid headlines: ‘NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL’; ‘DISCO INFERNO!’; ‘Uncle of Kid Killer was Peeping Tom As a Teen – To His Own Stepmum!’ Tom is a complicated hack: at times he has to play-act the sophistication his colleagues seem to possess naturally, and some mornings he has blaring intrusive thoughts in editorial meetings. He likes ‘an unusual challenge’, a difficult subject to crack, one that will require him to ‘access the methods of shrinks and priests’ rather than leaning on drink or sex for information. But lying and seducing come easily to him too. One of his pieces for a national, about a fictitious drug-pushing lollipop man, involved photographing his flatmate ‘dressed up in a big beefy tracksuit with a neon vest over it’.

Sex, purely by accident, brings Tom what promises to be the biggest scoop of his career. One evening, heading back to the flat of a young waitress he’s picked up, he discovers a South London estate abuzz: a three-year-old girl, Mia Enright, all ‘blonde hair in pigtails, big blue eyes’, has gone missing; the rumour is that she was last seen playing with a very different kind of girl, the wild, dark-haired, ten-year-old Lucy Green.

It’s 1990. Journalists and politicians share a social shorthand, an approach to ‘divvying up the poor’ into handy subcategories. People who live on council estates aren’t all alike: as Edward, Tom’s unscrupulous editor, puts it, there are the ‘Deserving Poor’, hard-working, decent families with traditional working-class values, and there are ‘Bad Apples’, immigrants, welfare state parasites, ‘sexual degenerates’. The Enrights have solid jobs in the community, in social care and council-funded youth work; the elder son, Elliott, is polite and keeps his distance from the rougher kids on the estate. The Greens – Irish, standoffish and, Tom presumes, ‘at least partially’ on benefits – are a different kettle of fish. There is Carmel, Lucy’s twenty-something mother, abstracted, inattentive, haughty-seeming; Carmel’s older brother, Richie, an alcoholic and self-confessed failure; their father, John, silent and invalided, devastated by the loss of his second wife, Rose; and Lucy herself, ‘known universally as trouble’. When Mia’s body is found on the estate the next day, her neck suspiciously bruised, Tom’s story seems ‘on its way to becoming a murder case’. People aren’t supposed to be fascinated by the thought of a child killing another child (worse, a girl killing another girl); but, since they reliably are, why not throw them a bone? Baby Mia, without a doubt, ‘will play’. ‘Even if it doesn’t bear out in the end, or doesn’t come to trial,’ Edward tells Tom, ‘it could be interesting.’

The Greens, if Tom has his way, are set to become one of the most notorious families in Britain. Ordinary Human Failings shows the tabloids operating with a double-edged attitude towards privacy. Initially, leads and names are shrouded in secrecy, guarded from premature exposure or the sharp noses of rival journalists (the Herald’s policy, when sources need sequestering, is to squirrel them away in a dingy hotel in Mornington Crescent, owned by the father-in-law of someone on the entertainment desk). But once the narrative falls into place and enough facts are checked, what was formerly withheld is forced into the light, the private made glaringly public. Confidences are revealed as temporary, formed in order to be broken.

The invasiveness this entails is felt acutely by the Greens, who, Nolan shows in a series of flashbacks, are obsessed with keeping secrets. John, as a young man in Waterford in the 1960s, remains silent when he discovers that his first wife, Louise, has been sleeping around, feeling that the poisonous shame of the knowledge has to be his alone. Richie, adept at hiding things even from himself (‘in the privacy of his own mind’, he is unable to frame the word ‘murder’ in connection with his niece), panics at the thought of his ‘ever decreasing world’ being on show to outsiders, police and neighbours ‘gawking’, ‘his chair and his rubbish and his drinks laid bare’. Carmel, too, finds certain facts impossible to verbalise, ‘even in the privacy of her own head’, and is attached to the small feeling of power that holding onto secrets, good or bad, affords her. When, at sixteen, she gets pregnant with Lucy, she keeps her older boyfriend’s name from her family ‘because she wanted a private thought of her own’: ‘Wasn’t she owed one little thing nobody else could see?’ The baby inside her, itself an intrusion of sorts, seems impossible to remove in the usual violent ways – gin, a scalding bath, a wire coathanger – for fear they may leave traces on her body. ‘Everyone would know what had happened, and what was driving her was the need for privacy. What was driving her was the need for no other person on earth to ever find out what was taking place inside her body.’

Nolan conceptualises privacy as a kind of internal space, a site for the cultivation of identity, but where dark things, ‘silent and spore-like’, can live. Lucy’s primary school teacher, catching Lucy smacking her forehead against a sink repeatedly, knows she has witnessed ‘something rent from a terrible unknowable privacy’, impossible to report or explain. Another character’s suffering happens ‘in the recesses of a privacy so total that it was almost evil,’ impregnable in its hiddenness. Extended sections of the novel trace the ways in which the mind, by pushing truths underground, enables itself not to believe in them, or to deal with their implications. In Nolan’s first novel, Acts of Desperation (2021), a tight, claustrophobic account of an abusive relationship, the narrator observes this psychological splitting taking place inside her at a dark moment: ‘I couldn’t verbalise what was happening because doing so would bring it into existence,’ she says of her boyfriend’s disappearance one Christmas. ‘So far, it was all taking place in my head with no verification from an outside party, and so long as I kept it that way I could suppress it.’ In Ordinary Human Failings, this mechanism is both part of the construction of character and integral to the plot, as the basis of the ‘network of absences and silences’ that allows Lucy to fall through the cracks.

Mental sleights of hand are passed down the generations. John’s response to receiving anonymous phone calls about his wife’s infidelity is instantly to ‘repress’ what they mean, allowing the nonchalant way he behaves in public to become the truth of the situation. ‘The phone call was too bad to be real except when he was alone.’ Repetition captures the shapes his mind coils itself into after a disabling injury at work, the doggedness of his circular thinking: ‘He felt dirtied by the incident somehow, as though the mild deformity of his injuries meant that he was inherently loathsome, as though that shame reached back in time to make him to blame for the accident which caused it.’ Decades later, the pregnant Carmel manages both to be aware of the irreducibly physical nature of her condition and convinced of its unreality: ‘She still was conscious of not giving the baby-thing any nourishment, even though she also didn’t believe in its existence.’ After Lucy’s birth, she copes by conceiving of her child in the abstract, ‘as an entity comprising schedules, and tasks to be dealt with’, ‘alive but meaningfully redundant’. All this double-thinking constitutes, she acknowledges later, a kind of madness – the threads of the mind pulled loose and ‘knotted together in nonsensical new iterations’. Lucy, naturally, doesn’t escape any of it, neither the lasting effects of her mother’s strategies nor the appeal of the strategies themselves. The most painful knowledge, she discovers after Mia’s death, is fundamentally unreal if it remains private. ‘If she behaved and appeared as though it didn’t exist, then almost all of the time it really didn’t exist.’

The protracted time Nolan spends in her characters’ heads is a function of the ‘ordinary’ nature of their lives. The Greens are people to whom remarkable things – until the murder, even remarkably bad things – don’t happen; theirs is an ‘average unhappiness’, as Carmel puts it, made up of non-events and routine disappointments, things hoped for and missed. Nolan is interested, she said in a recent interview, in the ‘circumstantial slipping away’ of potential, the way a future can gradually sour. Carmel, as a teenager, wants a big, special life, something commensurate with the promising depth of her feelings. Attempting to get rid of the foetus by starving it, she indulges in the fantasy of becoming like St Catherine of Siena, piously rejecting all sustenance but the Eucharist in protest at her parents’ plans to marry her off. The baby, in reality, proves to be the ruin of her specialness – the combination of being Irish and accidentally pregnant constituting, she explains to Tom later, the ‘most ordinary and pathetic thing you could be’.

Her father and brother have fewer hopes, but are disappointed all the same. Richie is weighed down by inertia, his drinking the only thing in his life with any real momentum. After leaving school in Waterford, he makes little effort to get a job, assuming that one will come to him, ‘announce itself’ – a kind of childish underthinking that Nolan renders in hopeful single-clause sentences: ‘But still. Not to worry. Something would make itself known.’ John sits and waits in the flat on the estate, marking time:

This perverse ongoingness was especially obscene since Rose died, but really it had been the case since Carmel got pregnant and they moved, but really it had been before that when his first wife left him, but really it had been when his father died, but really it had been his whole life.

This sentence has its own dogged ongoingness, each corrective ‘but really’ coming up against another, each attempt to identify a cause or a turning point slipping into repetition. It’s prose that seems to give up as it proceeds, pushing forward but folding at the same time. ‘He would just drink a normal amount, every day,’ Richie bargains with himself, ‘but not to that extreme degree he had before, and this was true until it wasn’t.’

Tom,​ plying the Greens with wine in the hotel in Mornington Crescent, trying to squeeze them for information that might help make sense of Lucy, wants something more than these dull anticlimaxes. Each of them seems unable to get past the one, essential failure. There is Richie, speaking only ‘of things and people as they related to the story of his drinking’; John, steamrollering ‘right on with whatever he was stuck on about his first wife’; Carmel self-interrogating over the real-not-real baby. Larger, more inexorable miseries and blockages are there too, but operating in the background, obliquely. John is horrified to realise that the reason he and his family clear their plates so rapidly at dinner is because they have learned this behaviour from his mother, a child of the Irish poorhouse; they are ‘living out ways’ that are hard to shift.

Tom’s questioning, intended to steer them onto juicier subjects, has the accidental effect of allowing the Greens to voice these stories aloud. Carmel, it’s suggested, has long wanted the chance to do so (at sixteen, she takes comfort in the thought that her pregnancy is at least ‘the most dramatic and definitively narrative thing to have happened to her since she had fallen in love’). Richie, by contrast, has trouble convincing himself that he’s worth the airtime: broaching difficult subjects, speaking up, he says at one point, have always seemed to him ‘things that other kinds of people did, things for the verbal and fortunate’.

The way the novel is structured is significant in this regard. It’s rare that the narrative eye is focused directly on the Greens, that their doings and interactions are given to us unmediated instead of via report or memory. In Part I, the family is studied from all angles – by Herald journalists, residents of the estate, Lucy’s GP, Lucy’s schoolteacher – but only briefly seen head-on. If not for Lucy, and the brief blaze of attention afforded to her family in the aftermath of Mia’s death, who would notice the Greens or listen to them? Or, as Tom wonders, furious, why weren’t they ‘clear-headed enough to understand that nobody cared about them, that there was no story besides the death of an infant?’

The trick that Ordinary Human Failings plays is to make us think we’re reading a certain kind of novel, before wrongfooting us. Crime narratives are appealing not just because they’re lurid and shocking, but because they’re well-behaved: they obey generic conventions, stick to an internal logic. Edward writes an editorial in the Herald (‘Who Killed Baby Mia?’) that refers to ‘nightmares’, ‘twisted fairy tales’, the presence of ‘evil’, ‘the wicked urges of a monster’. Tom can’t help questioning and insinuating like a detective in a classic murder mystery. In the early sections of the novel, Nolan breaks up the narrative by reproducing official documents and snippets of dialogue, enigmatic, fragmentary forms that cry out for interpretation. ‘The lot of them never seemed … how should I say it … they never seemed to be in the whole of their health,’ a neighbour says in one of Tom’s covert tape recordings, scattering suggestive ellipses like sweets.

The fact that none of it, in the end, adds up to what it’s supposed to – that Tom feels enraged even at ten-year-old Lucy, for not having ‘played her part sufficiently, not definitively enough’ – shouldn’t surprise us. Nolan isn’t interested in events that can be parsed in conventional ways, people who are more like stock characters than individuals. Her first novel has a tendency to tell you this openly. ‘It is boring for me to present myself through experiences which are instrumentalised constantly as narrative devices,’ the protagonist declares, rejecting the tropes of female victimhood in the context of her rape. (Being hurt is bad enough; being ‘hurt generically’ is worse.) Ordinary Human Failings does this occasionally too: Carmel, we’re informed, has no intention of playing the unappealing role open to her after pregnancy – to force her boyfriend to ‘bite the bullet’, stay in Waterford and marry her. ‘She didn’t want to be the bullet that got bitten. She didn’t want to be the breeding, nagging witch who got him back.’ But the novel is a subtler achievement because it’s less declarative, preferring to let human complexities and obstinacies, little by little, gum up the workings of the old narrative explanations.

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