Blurred vi­sions in post-crash Ire­land

No Fil­ter

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Sarah Gil­martin

By Or­lagh Collins Blooms­bury Chil­dren’s, £7.99

Afirst love that in­volves “stupidly blue eyes”, a Romeo and Juliet sto­ry­line and a gui­tar ser­e­nade in the moon­light as a light snow falls. No Fil­ter, the de­but young adult novel from Or­lagh Collins, is not for the hard­ened cyn­ics, or even those mildly al­ler­gic to grand ro­man­tic ges­tures and Hol­ly­wood end­ings.

The novel t ell s t he story of 16-year-old Emer­ald Ruther­ford, who is re­luc­tantly shipped off from her Som­er­set home to spend the sum­mer with her granny in a sea­side Dublin town. Emer­ald fears the sum­mer away from her so­cial-me­dia-ob­sessed group of friends will be bor­ing, but the cir­cum­stances that have prompted her ex­ile are far from mun­dane. Em­broiled in a bul­ly­ing scan­dal at school, she comes home one day to find her mother un­con­scious after a sui­cide at­tempt.

In a few short scenes, Collins cov­ers Emer­ald’s first-aid hero­ism, her mother’s ad­mit­tance to a re­hab clinic, sev­eral frus­trat­ingly opaque con­ver­sa­tions with her se­cre­tive fa­ther and a flight to Ire­land be­fore Emer­ald has time to tell her friends.

Tough sub­jects

No Fil­ter is a fast- paced, easy read about tough sub­jects that at times war­rant more depth. Where it shines is in its two ro­man­tic leads and the vi­brancy of a first love blos­som­ing over an ac­tion-packed sum­mer. Es­cap­ing from the strange si­lence of her grand­mother’s home, Em meets lo­cal boy Liam and his lively bunch of friends down by the beach shel­ters.

There is a con­vinc­ingly con­tem­po­rary feel to Emer­ald and Liam’s re­la­tion­ship, from the vivid scene at the shel­ters where Em saves the boys from the wrath of gar­daí, to a party where Emer­ald takes an ec­stasy tablet as Liam looks on in hor­ror and awe. Di­a­logue be­tween Liam and his friends is pin­point and funny, full of one­up­man­ship and blus­ter. The ban­ter be­tween Liam and Emer­ald also con­vinces, with a clear sense of the highs and lows of teenage ro­mance.

The pair give their in­di­vid­ual per­spec­tives on events in al­ter­nat­ing chap­ters and each be­guiles in their own way. Although Emer­ald laments the su­per­fi­cial­ity of her world back home, where her friends mer­ci­lessly rate each other on­line, she emerges as a thought­ful young woman who cares more about oth­ers than her­self. Liam is a mod­ern take on an old tale – the son who has to make up for his fa­ther’s fail­ures. In No Fil­ter, fail­ure comes in the epic shape of the prop­erty crash that left the Byrne fam­ily bank­rupt. Liam’s dreams of be­ing a mu­si­cian dis­ap­pear as his fa­ther forces him to­wards a de­gree in quan­tity sur­vey­ing.

There are sub­tle hints in the first half that a mys­tery is un­fold­ing along with the ro­mance: why did Emer­ald’s fa­ther leave as soon as he dropped her; why is Grandma on edge; why haven’t they vis­ited her in five years? This nu­ance is later let down by a rushed re­veal and a feel­ing of in­credulity about the fact that tech- savvy Emer­ald ( or her bitchy group of friends) wouldn’t al­ready have sussed the big se­cret.

Collins is sharp on the so­cial me­dia cul­ture of teenage friend­ships – “Ob­ses­sive Com­par­i­son Dis­or­der” – but she tries to pack too much into her book as she seeks to com­ment on its neg­a­tive im­pact. Bul­ly­ing, so­cial me­dia sham­ing, de­pres­sion, sui­cide, fraught child-par­ent re­la­tion­ships, the prop­erty crash and a bur­geon­ing ro­mance vie for at­ten­tion with each other. Grat­ing chap­ter ti­tles add lit­tle (“Set­tling a wob­bly glass”), ex­cept when they ruin suspense: “Twenty sec­onds of in­sane courage”. Slip­pages in voice are also ev­i­dent, with Liam notic­ing his mother’s “yo­gic breath” and Emer­ald de­scrib­ing Liam’s “lan­guid stance”. The Hol­ly­wood twists and end­ing feel twee after the edgi­ness of ear­lier chap­ters.

Born in Dublin, Collins is a former head of phys­i­cal pro­duc­tion at Pathé Films, where she over­saw films in­clud­ing The Magic Round­about, Mil­lions, Break­fast on Pluto and The Queen. She co­pro­duced the award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary Joe Strum­mer: The Fu­ture Is Un­writ­ten and the up­com­ing drama Mary Shel­ley. Her de­but novel has some nice cin­e­matic touches such as its vi­brant char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion, sea­side set­ting and sum­mer ro­mance sto­ry­line. The episodic na­ture of the nar­ra­tive and a ten­dency to shift not only scenes but coun­tries abruptly are traits of film that don’t work quite so well in fic­tion.

Au­thors like Sarah Dessen, Meg Rosoff, Ju­lia Green and Rain­bow Row­ell have made a name for them­selves by telling gritty com­ing-of-age sto­ries cen­tred on first loves and sec­ond chances. Their books go deep into the ado­les­cent psy­che to ex­plore is­sues from men­tal health to un­der­age sex to grief. No Fil­ter charts sim­i­lar ter­rain, though not as vi­brantly. The myr­iad scenes flick like a showreel, never fully delv­ing into the messi­ness be­hind bank­ruptcy or sui­cide.

In the words of its In­sta­gram-lov­ing pro­tag­o­nist, Emer­ald, it cap­tures a piv­otal time in two teenagers’ lives “in Reyes, or pos­si­bly Sierra”.

The myr­iad scenes flick like a showreel, never fully delv­ing into the messi­ness be­hind bank­ruptcy or sui­cide

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