The Last Days of Joy is the debut novel from Anne Tiernan – born in Zambia, raised in Ireland, and resident in New Zealand since 2005. The novel has what its titular character calls ‘a foot in each place’: Navan in County Meath, a small town near Dublin, and the place Tiernan grew up; and Tauranga, where the novel’s Irish family, like the author, have settled.
Its title suggests there is sorrow to come, and the story opens in a place of deep despair. Joy, mother of the Tobin clan, has spent thirty years in New Zealand but has felt ‘between lives forever’. The events of this dramatic first chapter leave Joy in a coma, and her point of view confined to brief snatches of memory. Most of the novel is shared between the three adult Tobin siblings, who gather around their mother’s hospital bed, trying to make sense of what has happened, untangling the past, while navigating personal crises in their own lives.
The youngest, Sinead, arrives from Ireland, where she returned in her 20s and became a publishing sensation with the best-selling Motherload, ‘a four-hundred-page barely disguised autobiography’ that made ‘Angela’s Ashes read like a light-hearted comedy’. Sinead has a catalogue of self-destructive habits and an unfulfilled publishing contract for her sophomore novel, now eight years overdue. For Sinead, ‘Ireland is in her DNA.’ She believes she was always more at home there – from her name ‘that made her an anomaly in a New Zealand school full of Kims, Kates, Beccas and Nickis’, to her chronic carsickness that meant she was ‘not built for New Zealand’s kamikaze topography, with its winding hills and cliff-edged hairpin bends.’
Sinead gets the call about her mother from Frances, who has stayed in New Zealand and prospered:
Frances, her older sister, with her willowy frame and pretty name. Frances with her big spotless house and its alphabetically ordered quinoa- and chickpea-filled pantry, artfully placed cashmere throws and Diptyque candles. Frances with her obliging, wine-pouring husband and bright, beautiful, swim champion daughter. Frances with her committees and dinner parties and coffees with the girls after high-intensity spin class. Frances with her self-control and her certainty in the authenticity of her ordered life.
In fact, as we learn in Frances’ own point-of-view chapters, she is discontented with her marriage and the life Sinead envies and despises. Frances lives vicariously through her teenage daughter, and soon becomes distracted by the glittery reappearance of an ex. There’s a similar disconnect between the appearance and inner life of their brother Conor, the eldest sibling, a high-profile charity CEO who ‘always needed external validation’, and whose ‘head has always been elsewhere.’ Preoccupied with his public persona and perception, Conor is unable to sit still at his mother’s bedside for long, drawn instead toward courting an ex-pat billionaire with philanthropic notions.
In Sinead’s book Conor appeared as ‘the character of the insecure and self-absorbed brother’ while an enraged Frances was portrayed as ‘the buttoned-down sister’. Conor too finds Frances prickly and ‘rigid’:
He finds it so hard to relax around her. So hard to connect. It shouldn’t be. Not after everything they’ve been through. Borne witness to.
What the siblings have been through revolves around their mother, Joy, the novel’s most complex character. Her backstory is told through flashbacks she experiences in her altered state of consciousness – from her own dysfunctional childhood, the strain of motherhood, her alcoholism, and the subsequent atrophy of her life. Joy is a flawed and troubled character, but by the end of the book, the well of suffering induces an immense empathy for her. The Last Days of Joy is concerned with the struggle of parenting, but more so, the pain of growing up, and the scars a difficult childhood leaves. ‘Motherhood is all second-guessing and guilt,’ Joy thinks in the opening chapter; she has told Frances that no woman is ‘ever the mother they think they’ll be’. The resulting hang-ups and traumas of her children – and Joy herself – are laid bare, the gaps that love and attention should have filled, the holes where judgement and neglect have seeped in.
All three siblings feel scarred by Joy’s parenting. Frances remembers: ‘One too many and her mother would tip from a childlike playfulness into a jaded scornfulness. You never knew till it was too late which drunk you’d get.’ Coming home from school, ‘Milk in and curtains open meant at least her mother had at some stage got out of bed that day. Milk still out and curtains drawn: God knows.’ Tiernan contrasts the mother that Joy was before the incident that drove her from Ireland to New Zealand, and the turbulent instability that followed. The thread of grief cuts through the novel, exploring the difficult question of how children grieve such a complicated relationship.
The novel frequently circles from present day back in time to memories of Navan – the siblings’ childhoods as well as Joy’s, her parents’ deficiencies held up like a mirror to her own, illuminating the infused generational trauma. The character of Joy took shape from the memory of Tiernan’s own mother, who died in 2010. The author’s brother, comedian and actor Tommy Tiernan (who plays the character of Da in Derry Girls) has talked about the ‘strange distance’ in their relationship with their mother.
The subject of the Irish alcoholic parent is a well-worn one in literature. Noelle McCarthy’s memoir, Grand – a finalist in this year’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – includes a reverse version of Sinead’s journey, with McCarthy returning to Ireland to see her dying, alcoholic mother. In Irish fiction, this is well-traversed territory for writers like Marian Keyes, but the novel doesn’t feel like it’s been done before; Joy’s narrative is original, and the rich family dynamics carry it through to its own destination. Tiernan’s style also recalls Keyes: the chapters are short, often just a matter of pages, and sentences, too, are often compact and staccato. Because of this, and Tiernan’s use of present tense, the story has pace, despite its weighty topics.
Their mother is not the only issue each sibling faces. Conor’s career careens towards collapse and he finds himself confronting his own personal mental health crisis. Frances steers her marriage towards implosion, while her teenage daughter cuts loose from their controlled, perfectionistic life. Sinead attempts to overcome a decade of writer’s block and false starts, but she’s inherited her mother’s addictive personality: alcohol, pills, and a deep-rooted body image battle all begin to unpin her.
The novel is witty, too, with funny moments that light up the darkness. The siblings remember driving in car with their mother when they were children were young: Joy, chain-smoking, wouldn’t let them open the car windows so they wouldn’t ‘catch their death’. When Conor wonders if having a child would have brought him closer to his mother, Frances has a snide response. ‘From your social media posts, it looks like you’ve adopted one already’, she says, referring to his girlfriend who’s half his age.
The contrasts between Aotearoa and Ireland are crisp and tactile. ‘Still, it rains’, Joy notes, recalling a day from her youth. ‘Not the drenching, thunderous downpours that sweep in and out quickly from the Pacific, but that insipid Irish drizzle that settles in for days.’ Conor, looking at Frances’ lush Tauranga garden, recalls the different landscape of their youth:
A couple of parakeets paint the kōwhai tree in the corner. Past the feijoa-hedged boundary of the lawn, the acre section backs on to bush. He thinks of the tiny, treeless back gardens separated by low wire fences in their newly built Navan estate that mean you could see into several houses all at once. The light-eyed jackdaws and yellow-beaked starlings that congregated on the flat rooves of the garages.
The Last Days of Joy does not rely on twists and turns, or a big reveal. Much is apparent from the novel’s beginning: we know from the title that these are the final days of Joy’s life, and early on learn her tragic secret. Often, clues of what is to come are explicit, like the epigraph of a book Sinead picks up, perhaps too conspicuous a signpost. It is clear, too, who betrays Conor, though at that point in the story, even within Conor’s own point of view, it is difficult to feel invested in his struggle. The resentment Frances feels towards her husband doesn’t seem entirely justified, and her perspective isn’t evoked deeply enough to substantiate her side of the fractured relationship.
Even if there is sometimes too much distance in perspective, Tiernan does an excellent job of using the multiple points of view – showing what is unsaid, and revealing the differences in how the characters see themselves, and each other. Despite the failures and wounds of the Tobin family, there is optimism in The Last Days of Joy. These characters are the messy sum of their trauma, mistakes, grief and guilt, but the novel suggests there is a way through: for the three flawed siblings, there is still joy ahead.