Katherine O’Donnell’s debut novel Slant is an exploration of life experiences, told through sentimental, heartfelt prose. In the opening chapter, the protagonist Ro McCarthy immediately absorbs us into her tenacious campaigning for the 2015 marriage equality referendum. Ro’s time canvassing swiftly transports her back to life in the ‘80s and the plot springboards from there.
Aged 22 and full of ambition, Ro moves from Cork to Boston and, although ‘undocumented’, juggles studying English literature and caring for an elderly, charismatic woman, Clara. Ro encounters an English girl, Jenny, and, at literal first sight, becomes irrevocably intoxicated by her. They finish each other’s sentences through poetry and their love eternally burgeons from that moment, feeling ‘the electric shock of Jenny’s fingertips.’
“A powerful story, laced with passion, soul, infatuation, and love”
Despite Ro’s instant obsession with Jenny, she meets a lawyer, Terri, and dives headfirst into an intense relationship with her. It becomes apparent rather quickly that Terri is nasty and demanding, which engenders a volatile relationship. After only a short time together, Terri encourages Ro to move to the coastal resort of Provincetown for the summer, so that she can earn more money and enable them to spend the weekends together. Thankfully, Ro befriends a group of enchanting gay men that become her ‘family’. After their first evening getting to know each other, Ro gleefully reflects that she becomes ‘more confident, settled and deeply happy’ among her ‘queer tribe.’
After a glorious summer of bohemian camaraderie, their carefree life takes a heart-wrenching turn, as some of Ro’s friends become ill with AIDS. The frequency of deaths among her friends leaves Ro numb, traumatised and despondent: ‘Legions died while my comrades and I tried to shatter the willful ignorance that buttressed the powerful.’ Consequently, Ro breathlessly campaigns for ACT UP, regularly travelling to Washington DC and New York. She is unrelenting in her commitment to her friends and battles through the ‘cruelty, rage, secrecy, lament, wildness, strength, suffering.’
Friend after friend tragically passes away, and then her beloved guardian angel Clara does too, triggering an abrupt departure from her life in Boston, back to her home in Cork. As Ro battles through grief, she still has a pillar of drug-inducing joy: Jenny. Through a series of letters, she and Jenny keep their flame alight, although it fails to transpire into the idyllic fantasy they manifested over the decades.
In the concluding chapters, O’Donnell leads us back to the marriage referendum, where Ro dedicates her time to ‘neurotically’ canvassing. After reading Ro’s journey, O’Donnell truly cements the importance of the referendum after the hardship that Ro and her friends were subjected to over the years. From protesting and canvassing for equal rights in New York in 1985, 30 years prior, the fire is never quenched. A powerful story, laced with passion, soul, infatuation, and love.
Words: Aisling Arundel