Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes

Orchid & the Wasp opens outrageously and does not miss a beat from there: ‘It is our right to be virgins as often as we like, Gael told the girls … Gael was eleven. It was her last term in primary school. Perhaps that was why the proposition backfired.’ This central character, Gael Foess, is a wonderful contribution to literature, as is Orchid & the Wasp. With Gael’s unwelcome meddling in the lives of her loved ones, Orchid & the Wasp has echoes of a modern-day Emma – if Emma were the rebellious Irish child of a national orchestra conductor and a Barclays banker.

Gael is precocious, her moral compass in many areas (but not all) varies with interest rates, and while she frequently makes decisions that will break your heart, she will win it back, again and again. We follow Gael and her evolving family (initially conductor and composer mother Sive; banker and Christian but ethically flexible father, Jarleth; and sickly, principled little brother Guthrie) through the years leading up to and beyond the Global Financial Crisis, both before and after Jarleth leaves them. For Gael, this time encompasses school, then university at King’s College (though she delegates much of her study), several entrepreneurial endeavours (some might term them ‘capers’, though their results are nothing to sniff at), the Occupy Wall Street movement, a brief stint in jail, negotiating the New York art scene and, of course, trips home to Dublin.

Caoilinn Hughes’ sharp and, at times, hilarious observations call to mind the unblinking writing and dysfunctional families not only of Jane Austen, but also Christina Stead and Jonathan Franzen. The full cast of characters is memorable and original, but Gael in particular challenges and charms. Orchid & the Wasp is a deceptively entertaining novel about merit and ambition, society and responsibility, and self-determination and fate, in which Hughes upends expectations and asks big questions, especially about obligation and love, without breaking stride, even for a moment.

Elke Power is the editor of Readings Monthly.