BOOK REVIEW: Being Emily by Anne Donovan
Being Emily is the second novel from Anne Donovan, whose debut – Buddha Da – was listed for both the Orange and the Whitbread First Novel awards. I haven’t read Buddha Da yet but have just ordered a copy on the strength of Being Emily, which is a beautifully written coming-of-age story.
It’s told in the first person, and in a broad Glaswegian brogue (which aids rather than hinders the story) by Fiona – a young girl growing up in the tenements of Glasgow.
We first meet Fiona when she’s a child – dreamy, obsessed with Emily Brontë (the Emily in question), an aspiring poet, but happy amid the noisy clatter of her Catholic family – mother, father, brother and twin sisters.
The second time we meet her it is four years later. Fiona’s mother has died in childbirth and the family has become fragmented – each one lost to his or her private grief and coping strategies – her brother has left home for gay London; her father half-vanishes into alcohol, and her almost psychotically irritating sisters immerse themselves in their dance routines.
After being a lively if preoccupied child, Fiona now seems to be a vague, still-waters sort of teen; doing well at school, dating Jas, an intellectual Sikh, and trying to figure out what to do with her life. She’s like a sponge, sharply observing those around her but almost drifting through her own life, still underlining her experiences with comparisons and escapes into the world of Emily Brontë.
But Fiona’s life deviates sharply from any Brontëesque comparisons when she callously drops Jas for his slightly fey musician brother, Amrik, whose attention she can never fully capture no matter how she tries. As a series of tragedies befall her, Fiona takes up multimedia art and creates dramatic, almost violent installations as she tries to express the turbulence inside her, before starting the long journey back to a sense of equilibrium.
Being Emily is a gorgeous, languorous and lyrical novel which treads the fine line between a realistic “real” life and a confused, fantastic “inner” life well. And I love how it shows how a childhood obsession can echo and vibrate down one life into adulthood.