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How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney: A Simplistic Misfire

Elaine Feeney’s debut novel, As You Were (2020), followed a woman with terminal cancer whose patients, in the ward they shared, reckoned with the shadows of shame and punishment cast by the ‘Catholic Church. It was a masterpiece of polyphonic narrative voice: like something Beckett might have written had he been confronted with the legacy of Irish mother and baby homes.

How to Build a Boat, second shortlisted by Feeney’s Booker, also foregrounds voice, primarily the point of view of Jamie, a neurodiverse teenager embarking on his first year at the Oratory, an oppressively honest boys’ school. Jamie loves Edgar Allen Poe, the color red, and the dynamic systems discovered by Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, which argue for the existence of universal patterns of connectivity. But most importantly, Jamie is determined to create a perpetual motion machine that will somehow allow him to connect with his mother Noelle, who died giving birth to him and who only exists in the two-minute film that his father has from his participation in a swimming gala.

Much of Feeney’s novel concerns the attempt to (yes) build a boat, a student project run by carpentry teacher Mr. Foley as a sort of substitute for Jamie’s much-desired machine, and in defiance of the principal’s wishes particular, Father Faulks. . Faulks dislikes neurodiverse students and spends most of his time giving assembly speeches about the sinful qualities of abortion and yoga, or how men can win the war of the sexes. Masculinity in this novel is in an obvious crisis: Foley, as wise as Faulks is stupid, has never in his life been in a serious relationship, while Jamie’s teacher, Tess Mahon, is married to a passive control freak -aggressive who can’t do it. take the trouble to attend her IVF appointments.

As a novel, How to Build a Boat is curiously a failure. Jamie, whose most mundane observations we are invited to regard as strangely profound and whose thought patterns too often seem arbitrary, seems more a fanciful confection than a fully realized human being. His speech is self-consciously formal: “I find myself in a place where I would like to have a practical application of what I should do to protect myself and enter into fully formed manhood. »

Feeney tries extremely hard to make us care about him and the other characters, but rarely gives us enough reason to do so. There are moments of real connection, including a gripping encounter between Mahon and his alcoholic, homeless father on the street at Christmas, but more often than not the emotions fail. The universal patterns of connectivity that this novel is so interested in remain a theoretical concern rather than a formally manifest one. How to build a boat is therefore a collection of disjointed ideas, with no overall model of its own.

How to Build a Boat is published by Vintage at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books


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