The Alternatives

The Alternatives


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Susan's Review

A marvel of a novel from another wonderful Irish writer. Caolinn Hughes’ The Alternatives is told from the perspectives of four Irish sisters: academic geologist Olwen, political scientist Rhona, celebrity Instagram chef Maeve, and adjunct academic philosopher Nell. For years Olwen was cast in the role of “mother” to her three younger sisters after the death of their parents; decades later, she rides her bicycle out of Galway and disappears into the rain and the night. When her sisters come to find her, the narrative gradually reveals the unresolved conflicts and unspoken regrets of their relationships. The exploration of the family dramas is sometimes tender and sometimes hilarious, and always emotionally compelling. In the process, the novel creates vibrant pictures of the academic life in Galway, entrepreneurship in Dublin, the class system in London and the life of an untenured academic in New York.

The Alternatives uses the difference between the sisters to consider radically different ways of seeing and being in the world. As its title suggests, the novel is deeply concerned with alternative ways of trying to make sense of our material existence: science, politics, the satisfactions of cooking, and philosophy. It’s the best kind of “educative” fiction: one that encourages us what and how to think while also creating a thoroughly entertaining story.

The title also refers to the novel’s profound reflections on the future of humanity. Focused on climate change, increasing threats to the democratic process, and the waning power of reason, it offers the alternatives of pessimism and hope; dooms-day prepping and the desire to have children; willed isolation and a passionate engagement with the world. While the word brilliant has become something of a reviewing cliché, The Alternatives — skilfully structured, beautifully written, intellectually engaging and waspishly amusing — thoroughly deserves the praise. It’s Caoilinn Hughes’ third novel, and her best yet.

Publishers Reviews

Olwen was plunged prematurely into adulthood when her parents died in tragic circumstances. She and her three younger sisters each single, each with a PhD are now in their thirties and leading disparate, distanced lives. Until one day Olwen, a geologist haunted by a terrible awareness of the Earth's future, abruptly vanishes from her home.
Together for the first time in years, her three siblings descend on the Irish countryside in search of a sister who doesn't actually want to be found. In an isolated rural bungalow they reach into their uncommon past, confronting both old wounds and a desperately uncertain future.

Fiercely witty and unexpectedly hopeful, The Alternatives is an unforgettable portrait of a family perched on our collective precipice, told by one of Ireland's most gifted storytellers.