I acquired a copy of this arc through Netgallery.
‘As You Were’ by Elaine Feeney is an adult fiction novel that focuses on the lives of three women living on the same hospital ward, and how they all cope with their past, present and unsure futures. It currently has an average rating of 3.92 stars on Goodreads and I have awarded it 4 stars.
Sinéad is a career driven woman with a terrifying secret she hasn’t told her family nor the other patients on the ward, she’s only managed to confide in Google and a sole magpie. But she can’t keep running from her past or her future, and she finds she needs both Jane and Margaret Rose, other women on her ward with their own problems and illnesses. Together, the three women bind together to sort through their pasts and presents and find a friendship that will set Sinéad free.
The book had an interesting premise and concept, though at times it was difficult to read for several reasons. The book was full of interesting characters and there was a great focus on mental health, trauma, morality and mortality, and each of these concepts were handled well. However, the style of the writing and frequent focus on heavy subject matters meant it could be hard to read at times, and made the pacing feel slow.
This is perhaps the first book I’ve read where I’ve believed the main character is facing their own mortality. It weaves together the grief and fear of facing death and illness with everything else that comes with it, and Sinéad feels like a woman who is scared of what is happening to her, yet we don’t feel that fear in every moment, although when we do it is punctuated and emphasised. It is an emotional read due to this, and I found myself with a lump in my throat quite often.
I very much enjoyed the difference between the three women on the ward featured in the book and how they interacted with each other, there was a focus on their friendship and how they all grew to love and care for each other. As well as this, I liked what each women brought to the story and their differing experiences and views of life, whilst unfortunately one life was more interesting than the other two it was not so bad I was rushing through the book to hear from only that one women again. What eclipsed the narration of their lives past and present was the focus on women friendship, and how important that is, the three women built a community so strong that it meant Sinéad was able to be free from her own past – it was beautiful to read.
There was also an intriguing exploration of mental health relating to trauma in this novel and how it can impact decision making and one’s future. It was nice to see an author who did not pretend trauma could be swept under a rug or couldn’t impact people’s health decades after the traumatic event. It didn’t seem like Feeney was trying to suggest trauma could be cured nor that it would ruin your life, but rather it was something that would stay with you and you should be aware of that, and manage it accordingly – which is how trauma is.
In addition to this there was a compelling running commentary on Ireland’s history and it’s politics. As someone who is ignorant of Irish politics and history I found this aspect of the book particularly fascinating, as it appeared Feeney largely commended the country’s attitudes towards women but also it’s failure to fully realise the promise it had made to it’s citizens with independence. This commentary seemed to run hand in hand with the main character’s motives and history and it was clear Feeney was condemning the impact of Ireland’s failures and broken promises to it’s citizens.
Yet, the writing at times could be confusing. The narration could feel muddled, perhaps because we’re following an unreliable narrator, but also as it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish the present from the past in the form of flashbacks. As well as this, Sinéad has an ongoing monologue inside her head of what she believes her father would think or say to her, which is not clearly stated when it first happens and rather the reader is left to decipher what is happening in the narrative. Without any clear distinction between past and present narration, but also with the possibility of someone else narrating at the same time, the reader can be left confused and unsure of what the character is thinking or feeling in the present moment; whilst you can decipher what is going on it is not immediately clear and takes attention away from the grief and trauma Feeney so expertly showcases.
Despite the book’s positive attributes, I wouldn’t recommend it to those who feel they wouldn’t or couldn’t read about illnesses or hospitals in great detail, as this does nothing to hide the horrors of disease or the fragility of life. Whilst I strongly admire the author for making this an uncomfortable read in this way, and refusing to censor the truth or make it a less bitter pill to swallow, it is however something you should be aware of as a reader.
Whilst this is not a book I would readily recommend due it’s heavy subject matters, it is a book I would recommend if you can bare to constantly face them. It does not shy away from hardship but I believe it also brings some hope and love to these topics, as well as shines a light on the importance of friendships amongst women.