The Alternatives

Caoilinn Hughes

The Alternatives
Oneworld Publications
United Kingdom
16 April 2024

The Alternatives

Caoilinn Hughes

Equal parts hilarious and profound, The Alternatives is a powerful new novel about four gifted Irish sisters, from a major literary voice. Perfect for fans of Jonathan Franzen, Maggie O'Farrell and Claire Vaye Watkins.

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.


Caoilinn Hughes is touted as a major new literary voice and from the very first page of reading The Alternatives it is apparent as to why. Her prose is exciting and original and while I don’t usually like to compare novels, I was dazzled and absorbed by this book in the same way I was reading Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting.

One might say this is a contemporary fairytale, the story of four Irish sisters orphaned in their youth after their parents died in tragic circumstances and Olwen, the eldest, is forced to take charge. However, the novel is firmly set in the present and as adults the sisters lead separate, distant lives. Worlds apart, each is brilliant in their chosen field – with PhDs in philosophy, geology, culinary arts, and political science – and each is uniquely eccentric. The sisters are forced to reconnect after Olwen unexpectedly vanishes from her home. It becomes clear that this is of Olwen’s own accord, with the circumstances echoing the past and for the first time in years all four sisters, one with a baby, end up together in an isolated rural shack on the Irish coast.

What ensues is a deep dive into the mechanics of a dysfunctional family, yet also so much more. Hughes delicately weaves their past and present battles with trauma, addiction, climate anxiety, capitalism and connection into a beautiful, slow burn character-driven tale that is sometimes heartbreaking and often poignant, while also being ever so funny and ultimately optimistic.

And for all that this novel tackles and achieves, from global conundrums to its writing feats, in the end the highlight is the simple familiar dynamics and interplay between the four sisters and the delightful influence of the enigmatic baby Leo. My head was spinning reading The Alternatives, in all the best ways.

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