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A Closer Look: ORCHID & THE WASP, Caoilinn Hughes

In Orchid & the Wasp, Caoilinn Hughes has created a singular character in Gael Foess. From the opening pages, set in Ireland in 2002 when Gael is only 11, to the conclusion, when 20-year-old Gael is back in Dublin in 2011 after years of travel and upheaval, this character captures our attention throughout. She’s wild and utterly unpredictable. She can be unlikeable, and Hughes doesn’t shy away from that characterization, but she’s equally enchanting, and we want to follow her every move. She keeps us guessing, throughout. It is impossible to start this novel and have any sense of where the journey will take us.

So how does Hughes create such an interesting character that intrigues us right from the start? She does it, in part, through a voice that’s as unique as her character. The language, too, is unconventional and surprising, nicely mimicking the character. Hughes is a poet as well as a novelist, and her love of language comes through in almost every line. She takes risks with her words, just as Gael takes risks in her life.

Take 11-year-old Gael in the opening lines of the novel:

It’s our right to be virgins as often as we like, Gael told the girls surrounding her like petals round a pollen packet.

“Just imagine it,” she said. “Louise. Fatima. Deirdre Concannon.” She pronounced their names like accusations. She snuck the top of her index finger into each of their mouths and made their cheeks go pop, pop, pop. “I did mine already with this finger,” she said. The girls flinched and wiped their taste buds on their pinafores.

What an opening! The topic, of course, is arresting, even before we learn that Gael is only 11. But the language can only be that of a poet. The alliteration in “petals round a pollen packet” captures our attention, as does the image that’s conjured up by the sentence. There are clearly associations to be made with the word “deflowering,” and Hughes allows us the space to make those connections. Right from the start, we see that Gael is at the center here, that our focus, just like the focus of the girls, will be on her throughout the novel. She is tough, and she speaks her mind, asserting what she believes.

Then when Gael begins to speak, we’re given more clues about Gael and about the novel. The imagination will be key. It’s almost as though that line (“Just imagine it,” she said) is the voice of Hughes within the voice of Gael, opening up the world of the novel. We see that the female body—the topic of this opening—and its corresponding sexuality will be a central concern as well.

And, again, we hear the sonic quality of this prose in Gael’s dialogue. “Louise” has two syllables. “Fatima” has three, and “Deirdre Concannon” has five. The ordering of these names allows the sentence to build, to have a sense of momentum. Gael puts her finger into each of the girls’ mouths and “their cheeks go pop, pop, pop” an onomatopoeic effect that again makes us aware of the language being used. Gael’s actions—putting her finger in other mouths—is invasive and perhaps uncomfortable, and our reaction to that is mirrored by the reactions of the girls. Before this first passage is complete, however, we are entranced with Gael. She has a hold on us, just as she has a hold (for the moment) on the girls circled round her.

It’s interesting to note how the girls react. They don’t wipe their tongues, they wipe their “taste buds,” which makes us both consider the sense of taste as well as the location of the taste buds. And they wipe them on their “pinafores,” a word that seems out-of-place in 2002, and therefore gives a sense of universality and continuity. We are instantly reminded of other coming-of-age novels, but also of picaresque novels, that, by definition, normally feature male protagonists. Here, as well, Hughes is urging the reader to pay attention to every word.

A page later, the girls have turned against her and reported her to the school authorities. But we are with her to stay. The opening section ends with another sentence where we see Hughes opening up the book for us: “Though, as Mom was out of town, it was to be an unfamiliar fate.” The novel’s twists and turns are never predictable and rarely familiar. Gael will move from place to place, each chapter settling in with her for a few days at a given age.

We like Gael’s boldness and her unpredictability, her willingness to do things we might not have done but wished we had. (Back in the classroom, she turns her back to the blackboard and begins painting her nails with Wite-Out.) We’re intrigued by the fact that she’s already no longer the queen bee, and that her fall took place so quickly in the opening pages. And we sense—and Hughes knows not to explain—that Gael will prove to be a complicated and complex character, a girl wise beyond her years, a protagonist we will never forget.

by Laura Spence-Ash