By Fleur Howe- Deputy Editor
Louise Nealon’s debut novel, Snowflake (2021), has been showered with reviews and became an No.1 international bestseller with reviewers comparing it to Sally Rooney, and coined by Goodreads as a ‘21st century Colm Tóibín’. The book depicts the life of Debbie White, an 18-year-old brought up on a dairy farm in County Kildare, and her experience attending Trinity College Dublin. Nealon herself grew up on a farm in Kildare and also studied at Trinity before doing a Masters at Queen’s University Belfast. Nealon draws on the experience of transitioning to life in a big city college from life on a farm; the struggle to fit in; turbulent family dynamics; and the complexities of new friendships, making for a compelling coming-of-age story.
The plot does not shy away from dark themes; its heavy focus on mental health is realistic to the point of discomfort at times, but is coated in magical realism. While many reviews find this compelling, I found it distracting at points. Debbie’s struggles with identity are central to the novel, and her flawed way of navigating relationships makes it relatable and very much a call to young adults across the country, in the same position. What the novel does really well, is create balanced imperfect characters that are not always likeable, but this realism, for me, is interrupted by the subplots of magical realism – I would go as far to say that they are unnecessary.
The plot is quite scattered, jumping through scenes with gaps between the chapters in a form similar to that we expect of Rooney. I think it works to capture the different aspect of Debbie’s life, but at points makes storylines feel rushed or ignored. It also meant that I would be heavily engaged with a section, only to be jolted back out of it. Yet, formatted almost like a collection of short stories, rather than chapters, definitely makes the heavier topics more digestible.
There is very little that is conclusive about this book; it doesn’t have much of an arc or a message except I think that in itself is the point, and its open-ended nature makes the novel feel like a snippet of Debbie’s journey of identity. The novel is not conclusive because neither is life – as frustrating as that can be to read.
Overall, it is a book I would recommend. It is easy to get through, being funny at times and sad at others. Nealon’s way of describing things is unique and beautiful, but there are elements of the plot I definitely found frustrating. There is something comforting about reading flawed characters; it is what makes a coming-of-age relatable, but this is definitely not a light read. The novel is an impressive debut, and I will for sure be keeping my eyes out for more of her work.