‘Meet Jamie and his community on the west coast of Ireland,
in the most uplifting and tender book of the year‘
– How to Build a Boat
[ About How to Build a Boat ]
Jamie O’Neill loves the colour red. He also loves tall trees, patterns, rain that comes with wind, the curvature of many objects, books with dust jackets, cats, rivers and Edgar Allan Poe. At age 13 there are two things he especially wants in life: to build a Perpetual Motion Machine, and to connect with his mother Noelle, who died when he was born. In his mind these things are intimately linked. And at his new school, where all else is disorientating and overwhelming, he finds two people who might just be able to help him.
How to Build a Boat is the story of how one boy and his mission transforms the lives of his teachers, Tess and Tadhg, and brings together a community. Written with tenderness and verve, it’s about love, family and connection, the power of imagination, and how our greatest adventures never happen alone.
[ My Review ]
How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney was published April 20th with Harvill Secker and has just been nominated as one of thirteen books for The Booker Prize 2023 longlist.
Set in a town on the west coast of Ireland How to Build a Boat is the story of young Jamie O’ Neill as he makes the transition into secondary school. Jamie struggles with change. He has lived with his Dad all his life, as his mother died in childbirth. His Dad is doing his best and has always championed Jamie but it hasn’t been without its challenges. Routine is very important to Jamie. As neurodivergent, having everything in order, with a sense of being in control, is vital to his everyday living. Jamie loves the work of Edgar Allan Poe and his plan is to build a perpetual motion machine that will enable him to connect with his mother. Today though, he just has to walk two thousand, eight hundred and sixteen steps to his new school Christ’s College along a well-planned route.
On this same day Tess Mahon, a teacher at Christ’s College, is prepping herself psychologically for the day, term and year ahead. Tess is struggling in her personal life, as her relationship with her husband, Paul, is close to collapse. After many unsuccessful IVF attempts, Tess is questioning her life choices, looking back over her own past, doubting the path she has taken. Going into school, she is off-kilter and no longer feeling herself. But then she crosses paths with Jamie O’ Neill. Tess has always been the special needs assistant in the school but Christ’s College is a testosterone-infused environment that supports male dominance and strength. The principal has very little time for weakness, meaning that Tess’s student population is shrinking.
Tadhg Foley is a new teacher at Christ’s College. He has come from an island off the west coast, where he has spent most of his life, and will now be the woodwork teacher. Tadhg has very little time for rules and lives an off-the-grid type of lifestyle. He is a strong believer in the term meitheal, which is an old Irish term that originated from when neighbours got together to offer a helping hand to each other when needed. It denotes community and a feeling of belonging. Tadhg abhors bullying behaviour and sees it happening in Christ’s College from the top down. He makes an unlikely connection with Tess and together they collectively sense a need to help young Jamie O’ Neill and his dream to build his perpetual motion machine.
Amidst the noise, the misogynistic environment and the general mayhem of Christ’s College, Jamie O’ Neill finds his meitheal. In the woodwork classroom, a curragh designed by Tadhg, which is a type of Irish boat, historically used by the islanders, becomes a project that allows Jamie to be part of something, to be part of a team. He is dubious about the success of this new venture but he soon becomes distracted by it, allowing him to bypass the chaos that surrounds him.
‘They never stop. Wood never rests. It is always seasoning, And moving.’
Jamie, Tess and Tadhg develop a beautiful bond as the novel progresses, with each of them taking brave steps forward into a new world. Their characters are all wonderfully depicted and given the space to develop as we get insights into their backgrounds and their individual stories. Elaine Feeney has created a profound and heart-warming tale, with an easy flow that twists and turns as the book progresses. As a poet, Elaine Feeney understands words and the meanings behind them while also knowing that, at times, less is more. Jamie, Tess and Tadhg are three lost souls who find joy in an unexpected community where they learn to freely express themselves and shine a little brighter.
How to Build a Boat is an uplifting novel, one that will leave every reader hopeful and optimistic. The boat is an analogy for something bigger, something transformative and it is this exploration that really captivates and makes this novel a very special one.
[ Bio ]
Elaine Feeney writes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. She has published three poetry collections including The Radio was Gospel & Rise. Her debut novel As You Were won Dalkey Book Festival’s Emerging Writer Prize, The Kate O’ Brien Prize, Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize, and was shortlisted for Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards and the Rathbones-Folio Prize. She featured widely on Best of 2020 lists and Feeney was chosen by The Observer as a top ten debut novelist.
Feeney’s short fiction was published in The Art of The Glimpse: 100 Irish Short Stories and she has published widely including, The Paris Review, The Stinging Fly, The Moth, Poetry Review and The Guardian.
Feeney lectures in poetry and Creative Writing at The National University of Ireland, Galway, where she is a founding member of the Tuam Oral History Project. She also works on mentorship programmes and is interested in institutions and restorative justice, empathy in education, nationhood and working-class voices.
Her second novel How to Build a Boat was published in 2023 (Harvill Secker) and a new poetry collection, All the Good Things You Deserve (Harvill Secker) is forthcoming in 2024.
X ~ @elainefeeney16