First published in October 2019.
I do not tend to gravitate toward young adult books, but Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan sounded quite original. Whilst I had not read any of her fiction before picking up this tome, I have heard a lot of positive comments about her writing, and was eager to sample it for myself. Fellow Irish YA author Louise O’Neill, whose fiction I enjoy, writes: ‘Reading Needlework is similar to getting your first tattoo – it’s searing, often painful, but it is an experience you’ll never forget.’
Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Frances, is known as Ces. Ces wants to become a tattoo artist, so that she can ’embroider skin with beautiful images. But for now she’s just trying to reach adulthood without falling apart.’ She lives in Ireland, and has to work at a local newsagents in order to make ends meet. She and her mother have left her violent father, and her mother often does not leave her bedroom during the day. ‘She is a good mother,’ Ces tells us, ‘or she can be. It’s just that she is broken and she knows I am as well but that doesn’t stop her breaking me even more.’
We learn, throughout, about Ces’ ‘meditation on her effort to maintain her bodily and spiritual integrity in the face of abuse, violation and neglect.’ She ruminates on the horrors which have been done to her, and the fear which she has of being seen as a victim. She has a sexual relationship with the boy that lives next door in a house ‘mostly made of plywood and fag ash’, Tom, and recognises the deep-rooted problems at its heart: ‘There is something wrong with it, amoral even. Not on my part, or on his, but kind of both. I’m using him while also being used.’ Indeed, there is a volatility to each of the relationships in her life.
Sections of present-day narrative have been interspersed with poetic, rather mesmerising prose, which details tattoos and artwork. Ces is continually concerned with the body and the skin, and how it can be transformed into something beautiful, or just different. The novel opens in the following way: ‘First prepare the skin. Not the room, the tools you’ll use. The skin itself, a mental switch to open you to something… Needles, things that fascinate me always. Much kinder and much crueller than are knives, a spindle-pierce through filaments and fingers.’ This continues throughout, pulling the whole story together, and often adding a little light relief to the dark subject matter.
The prose has some really gorgeous, textured writing to it, particularly when Sullivan explores tattoos, art, and marking oneself with something as permanent as a tattoo: ‘Your needle is a pen, and ink your pigment. Fish-scale silver, saucy ketchup red. Mute or lurid colour. A whisper or a scream.’ The imagery which Sullivan creates is sometimes quite haunting. She writes: ‘I drew an angry eye inside my book. A woman made of snakes. A crown of bones upon a kingly head. A woman holding up a mirror to her decapitated neck. A jar of honey filled with many bees.’
I found the narrative quite beguiling. Ces is an unusual character in her outlook, and the way in which she tackles things. She seems, in many ways, older than her years; she tends to be quite wise. There is no real naivety to her, due to the situations which she has found herself in, and the way in which the agency of her body has been taken by others. She is not always a loner, but she often feels alone. She comments: ‘I am not liked. People who do not know me automatically assume that I am a cold bitch. That is the phrase they use. Maybe it is true. I find it difficult to warm to people. I always assume that they pose a threat and gird myself accordingly.’
Ces’ observations of herself are suffused with pain; they are sometimes brutal, and often hard to read. She does not hold out a great deal of hope for her future, either: ‘I sometimes see my life as a series of doors shutting loudly, one after another.’ I found her narrative voice entirely convincing throughout. When she talks about her difficult past, and how it has affected her, she does so with a kind of gloomy beauty: ‘I thought Dad was the source of all my problems. And now he is removed and things remain the same within my head. I wish my brain was metamorphic rock. Dark blue limestone changed to purest marble, wiping clean the dirt that lurks in pores. Like a phoenix, rising from the heat, all new and perfect.’
Needlework is described in its blurb as ‘powerful, poetic and disturbing’; it is all of these things. Its beautifully written prose is often bleak, and there are such vivid descriptions of violence and abuse within it that it should not be read by the faint-hearted. Needlework is more hard-hitting than any other young adult novel I have encountered; there is so much within it that seems more suited to gritty adult fiction. Sullivan has certainly tackled some difficult subjects here, particularly with regard to sexual abuse, and I would suggest that it is not an appropriate novel for those under the age of fourteen to read. I, somewhat older than the novel’s intended audience, found myself wincing at points in the narrative.
Sullivan presents a raw, unflinching portrait of the real troubles that so many young girls are forced to go through, and Needlework is all the more unforgettable and striking for it. This coming-of-age novel is painfully observed, and well worth picking up if you’re looking for something challenging to read. Needlework did so much more than I was expecting, and I imagine that its powerful story will stay with me for a long time to come.