Neasa Morrigan is the wonderfully complex protagonist at the center of Rain Arlender’s outstanding novel simply titled “Y.” This is a smart, well-written story, set in Ireland. But to characterize it as your typical coming-of-age piece of fiction is to undersell its inventiveness, its rich characterizations, and its ability to immerse the reader in Neasa’s world.
She just wants to be left alone — except for the time she spends with Aiden, of course. Aiden — severely asthmatic — is just a friend, Neasa proclaims. That’s good, because when a good-looking actor named Ryan Delaney comes into her life unexpectedly, she must wrestle with feelings that are both new and uncomfortable.
She goes — against her will — to one of his performances — using tickets he’s given her as repayment for offering sanctuary from screaming adolescent fans at the library where she works. Onstage, he’s quoting Shakespeare.
“As soon as he started reciting he stepped out of the light, only his voice was there, alone in the darkness, deep, slightly hoarse, but still, like a velvety caress.”
It seems, however, that everything Ryan does to deepen the friendship, Neasa pulls away. He doesn’t understand at first that this is a girl who’s never been given a Christmas present, never lied to her parents, and certainly has never allowed anyone to get close to her — emotionally or physically.
Watching the pathologically withdrawn Neasa go through the fits and starts of figuring out how to have a relationship with a young man — much less the handsome and famous Ryan Delaney — is like watching a newborn colt trying to walk. You, as a reader, want desperately to reach into the pages to help — to reassure Neasa that everything will be all right.
But will it?
Ryan, for his part, is genuinely puzzled at Neasa’s inability to respond to even the mildest advances, or even take a compliment in stride. Then, he really throws her for a loop by asking her to go with him to a casting call in Dublin. Against all odds, she agrees — or, at least, doesn’t disagree.
This remarkable and unique story is one of paralyzing, deeply personal fear, fragile hope, and carefully emerging love. The book’s almost stream-of-consciousness style of writing is a bit unsettling at first. But it is this very construct that elevates it to lyrical heights.
— Like a planet, I spun in the Universe — in orbit, but unconsciously — completely lost in time and space.
— Every person is a different world — he replied — At first you just try to figure out whether it’s even worth luring the other person out of their shell. Because the process of finding out what they’re hiding is slow and gradual. And sometimes you can be surprised.
I want to die without leaving a trace.
Does Neasa finally let her defenses completely down to allow Ryan to explore — ever so cautiously — the slowly blossoming relationship? Can Neasa’s family and friends permit such closeness with an “outsider?”
I give this novel five stars, and look forward to discovering more about this delicate, yet strongly determined young woman in Part Two.