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'A scathing critique of neo-liberalism': Orchid & the Wasp reviewed

Compulsively readable: Caoilinn Hughes. Photo/Danijel Mihajlović/Supplied

Caoilinn Hughes, an Irish writer with Kiwi ties, offers a witty, readable tale of a young woman’s campaign against neo-liberalism.

There’s a type of orchid that looks like a female wasp, so it attracts the male wasp to help pollinate the flower. This isn’t explained anywhere in Caoilinn Hughes’ Orchid & the Wasp, but it’s clearly the novel’s major metaphor for female duplicity suckering in gullible males.

Hughes, who, while she was living in New Zealand, delivered a much-acclaimed debut collection of poetry, Gathering Evidence, is part of a new generation of Irish writers: hip, satirical, middle class, university educated and diving into ideas that weren’t once the norm in Irish writing.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Orchid & the Wasp covers nine years in the life of Gael (note her symbolic name), beginning in 2002 when she’s 11 and precocious, and ending in 2011 when she’s a young adult and smartly cynical. Mother and father are careerists and not the best minders of their children. Younger brother Guthrie is not quite epileptic but has strange fits in which he sees visions. Gael early on decides the way forward is to profit from other people’s willingness to believe bullshit, but she has a soft spot for her brother and is his protector.

The author has said that this novel is intended as “a scathing critique of neo-liberalism”. Well … maybe. Sure, young Gael’s father is a hotshot financier and things go rotten with the financial crash of 2008 when Ireland’s “Celtic tiger” becomes an impoverished alley cat. Sure, the action takes Gael from Dublin to London and then New York, where she gets involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement and trades verbal blows with her father about capitalism. But the swipes at neo-liberalism are only part of the novel’s effect. The focus is on Gael and her cunning.

There’s some explicit sex early in the novel, but even though a lesbian relationship between Gael and her American room-mate, Harper, is implied, it isn’t foregrounded. Gael’s life is attracting wasps, not finding domestic bliss.

Hughes’ debut novel is compulsively readable; she is a talented poet (as the aforementioned Gathering Evidence proves) and every page bubbles with witty comparisons, apt imagery, telling details, neat evocations of place – a wonderful use of language that keeps you turning pages.

However, the main character is not entirely believable. The blurb describes Gael as “a heroine of mythic proportions”. She’s a trickster, manipulator and con-woman, so maybe this is the intended satire of neo-liberalism. She can be as unscrupulous as the financial fellas are. But she has an incredible facility with the gab. She gives witty, copious and articulate answers when she tries to fake her way into the London Business School. When doing some dodgy dealing in the New York art world, she can reel off flawlessly the type of jargon used by pretentious art dealers. Her conversations about high finance snip-snap along like a smooth film script. Not really “mythic” so much as a fantasy figure.

It’s a good novel in the picaro tradition, nevertheless.

ORCHID & THE WASP, by Caoilinn Hughes (Oneworld, $34.99)

This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.