literary journalism

Niamh Campbell’s ‘We Were Young’

In This Happy, Niamh Campbell’s widely shortlisted 2020 debut, a 30-year-old woman recalls an affair she had in her early twenties with a man in his forties. Now married to a 40-year-old, she recognises the “extreme melancholy and longing which overtakes” middle-aged men, “and which they always believe to be original”.

We Were Young takes up the thread by tracking a man on the cusp of middle age, caught between the competing drives for freedom and intimacy. Cormac, a bisexual photographer and lecturer, is single and trying to stave off the trappings of middle age with casual sex and drugs. His ex, Ava, a well-known choreographer, is now married to a producer and “has a child, a trampoline probably – he imagines it silvered with dewdrops as the sun crowns over the gardens of suburbia”.

Cormac’s banker brother, Patrick, meanwhile, is confronting his own midlife crisis, with his marriage strained by his drinking. Cormac fields late-night calls from Patrick’s worried wife, culminating in an intervention. Cormac sees his brother’s choice of profession as a kind of class betrayal: “He has known Patrick all his life – but time and ascension into identities have made them strange.” Both men are haunted by the loss of their brother Thomas in their youth.

The novel opens at an immersive theatre experience about the Magdalene laundries, where Cormac panics as he tries not to get aroused by a naked actress in a bathtub: “Why did they have to choose an actress with a taut, sexy body? Is that really necessary? Are you supposed to ignore that?” He starts to date Caroline, a dancer he meets at the play. They’re both keen, but his resistance to commitment scuppers any chance of connection. Like at the theatre, Cormac prefers to hang back rather than get involved. Relationships, he believes, are destined to decay—“mysteriously, but inevitably”.

In addition to Caroline, Cormac is enmeshed with other lovers, both female and male, with whom he slips in and out of intimacy. The sex scenes proceed calmly, with Campbell more likely to notice the quality of light than the shifting geometries of the bodies: “There was a huge halfmoon outside the window as they fucked.” I was less convinced by the drug interludes—of characters taking MDMA and mushrooms. (Trips are notoriously tricky to capture in writing, as altered states of consciousness are largely ineffable.)…

Read the full review online in the Irish Times

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