Caoilinn Hughes’s highly ambitious fiction debut contains multitudes. In fact, it’s so multitudinous that it’s hard to know where to start. What is it? Bildungsroman? Picaresque? Novel of ideas? State of the nation critique? Philosophical treatise? Cultural literacy primer? In truth, it’s all of these and then some; the quintessential 'baggy monster' of a novel, even at a modest yet action-packed 337 pages ... Less a carefully plotted novel, more a series of loosely connected escapades, it has faint echoes of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which also features rococo plot variations, singular protagonists and skulduggery in the art world ... Poet-novelists have a tendency to overelaborate linguistically and, for all the swing and flow of Hughes’s bravura prose, there are passages which are overwritten to the point of self-parody ... Still, I predict that most readers are going to love her.
...[a] visceral and electrifying debut ... Gael’s ruthless manipulations make her a memorable character, but her fire, uncharacteristically, fizzles out toward the end. The novel also loses pacing as it lingers a tad too long on the Occupy Movement, and its somewhat neat and sappy ending doesn’t quite meld with the story’s early energy. Nevertheless, in Gael, Hughes has created a mesmerizing and compelling force.
...the novel showcases Hughes's talent as both a shrewd student of character and an astute observer of contemporary life ... Whether it's Gael's improbable, hilariously dismissive admission interview at London Business School, her caustic take on three young Master of the Universe types during an evening of partying or her frightening experience at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park in 2011, Hughes persuasively portrays some of the obstacles facing a modern young woman who decides to take on the world armed with little more than her wits and noble intentions ... [a] refreshingly honest novel.
The implication is that if Gael were male, we'd excuse or admire her. Hughes' point isn't without merit, but her insistence in presenting Gael without nuance results in her coming across as just another of society's barnacles. If she were male, we'd be repulsed by him. Still, the question: Is there something to be gained by meeting a female character so wholly self-absorbed, so unfailingly cold? Maybe so, if only for the experience.
Throughout the novel, Hughes makes deft use of the elasticity of language, so the text is packed with neologisms and wordplay. The abundance of figurative language gives a luminous clarity to the characters ... While the narrative’s dense prose sparkles with acuity and concision, the pacing is uneven. There are chapters when it slows to a crawl before accelerating to a surge. In one particularly tiresome passage, the ingredients of the four family members’ restaurant entrees are painstakingly listed ... Gael herself has a consistent voice, but is ultimately a static character buoyed by an unflagging and somewhat unrealistic self-assurance. A protean figure only in appearance, she shows no personal growth through the 300-plus-page narrative ... Gael’s lack of maturation is what prevents this novel from being a conventional bildungsroman but makes it a modern one.
For a novel with a con-artist heroine, Hughes’ debut is oddly quiet and language-focused. Most of the action takes place off-stage or in long passages of dialogue relayed well after the fact. But Hughes delivers a compelling exploration of what it means to create art, skewering the arbitrary restrictions of art-world gatekeepers along the way ... As strange, musical, and carefully calculated as its unusual heroine.
The freewheeling first novel by Irish poet Hughes is dominated more by character than plot, but the determined, daring central character is worthy of the spotlight ... Hughes’s breezy approach, clear love of language, and endearingly flawed central character contribute enough charm to compensate for a not entirely credible plot.