1 May 2019 | Karen Kao
I like Gael Foess. She’s the anti-heroine of Orchid and the Wasp, the debut novel by Caoilinn Hughes. Gael has no morals. Instead, she has brains, supreme self awareness, and a mouth that should be registered as a license to kill. I’d like to call her sweet cheeks to her face and watch the fireworks explode.
Here she is in the beginning of the novel, all of 11 years old and in full-on profit-making mode. She’s come up with virgin pills, blood on demand, because
It’s our right to be virgins as often as we like, Gael told the girls surrounding her like petals round a pollen packet.
‘Just imagine it,’ she said. ‘Louise, Fatima, Deirdre Concannon.’ She pronounced their names like accusations. She snuck the tip of her index finger into each of their mouths and made their cheeks go: pop, pop, pop.Caoilinn Hughes, Orchid and the Wasp (Oneworld Publications 2018)
But timing is everything, as Gael soon learns. Her permanent virginity solution fails but this fearsome child doesn’t look back. There’s so much more havoc to wreak ahead.
Gael the anti-heroine
When Hughes headed into the writing of Orchid and the Wasp, her intent was to fill an appalling gap. Her female protagonist was to be an unapologetic anti-heroine. A woman out in the world with balls of steel.
I was really baffled and concerned by the fact that there don’t seem to be many novels, and even films or stories, about women who aren’t given an element of trauma who are unlikable or ostensibly unlikable — and who you see succeed.Caoilinn Hughes in an interview with Lulu Garcia-Navarro, “In ‘Orchid And The Wasp,’ An Unapologetic Heroine Who’s No Gentle Flower” for NPR, 5 Aug 2018 (retrieved 21 Apr 2019)
At a reading in Amsterdam last month, Hughes offered that same explanation for the one star reviews Orchid and the Wasp has been getting on Goodreads. Whether in fiction or in real life, we’re not accustomed to an anti-heroine who is neither a sociopath (think Gone, Girl) nor traumatized (pick any rape revenge narrative). In House of Cards, Claire Underwood isn’t allowed to become president of the United States without the obligatory revealing of a traumatic past.
The complaints on Goodreads run something like this: Gael Foess is egotistical, narcissistic, and manipulative. She’s not the sort of character I want as a friend. Not the sort of person anyone would call sweet cheeks.
Fledgling writers are told their protagonist must be likable. Tons of online articles will teach you how. Give your character flaws (check). Make her funny (check). Surround her with other characters who like her (check). Give her worthy goals (oops).
According to the likability scale designed by psychologist Stephen Reysen, the real question behind likability is: what’s in it for me? Can I ask this person for advice or information? Do I want this person as a co-worker, roommate or friend?
Gael Foess is none of these things. She gives bad (i.e morally suspect) advice. She breaks her roommate Harper’s heart. If anything, Gael avoids making friends, even under dire circumstances like exhaustion after an ill-advised run.
Though the warm pretzel held out to her in a napkin, with its giant white salt crystals atop the glossy dough, makes her salivate so that she had to pretend to wipe her nose, she doesn’t take it. That’s exactly the kind of debt a new credit card won’t cover.
Gael’s world does not align with that of most readers and how could it? She ricochets from Dublin to London to New York and back, by way of the London School of Economics, the art scene in Chelsea, and Occupy Wall Street. Her mother, Sive, is an orchestra conductor, not a job many moms hold.
To be a conductor and female, you have to be exceptionally good. You have to live with the fact that your players don’t automatically look up to you, even for the sake of appearances. You have to claim the phallic object between your finger and thumb. Command with it.
Jarleth, Gael’s father, is more recognizable in his role as the unconscionable banker. As a child, Gael wants to please him with her cleverness, the only coin Jarleth will take.
Gael looked at Jarleth, who was watching her, not with amusement or interest but with disgust at her sex. It would be most despicable in its adolescence, he must have feared. The parting of his black and grey hair looked wide as a spoon so close to the ceiling light.
Apparently, readers need to bond, empathize, and identify with a character. This is how you sell books. But to demand relatability from a character seems also to require predictability. The reading experience must be reduced to a selfie. I know this character; her world is recognizable; I know how her story will end.
A Novel of Ideas
Gael is anything but predictable. Even her self-interest swerves at times. Her soft spot is Guthrie, her brother. To help him, all means are justified, even when the ends are not what Guthrie wants.
Here they are, come from school. Guthrie is 10, Gael 12. They walk through the park with its bulb-shaped pond and in its center the bronze statue of Anna Livia Plurabelle, Dublin’s unofficial guardian angel. Guthrie prays for a miracle. He believes he can walk on water.
The gulping sounds were what disturbed her more than anything. ‘You sounded like a donkey getting off,’ she told him after. But in fact, it had sounded of something new to them both: it had sounded of the will to survive, falling short.
I would have liked it if Hughes had given Guthrie and the rest of the supporting cast of Orchid and the Wasp a bit more elbow room. To cast more of a shadow to the sun, the moon, and the stars that is Gael Foess. But this is a novel of ideas. Ideas like privilege being the first and foremost condition for success. The idea that meritocracy, like miracles, do not exist. Late capitalism as decor to Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Gael is the lightning rod through which all these energies current.
I’ve said nothing yet about the fact that Caoilinn Hughes is a poet. It shows in her prose in the best possible way though it did slow down my reading. I felt like a kid at the carnival, eyes as round as any Ferris wheel, trying to decide which attraction to take in first. To find out more about Hughes the poet, read Science, my review of her debut poetry collection Gathering Evidence.
Or just stick around for the ride Gael Foess will take you on. She’s good fun, those sweet cheeks.