How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney

Elaine Feeney’s second novel, the 2023 Booker Prize long-listed How to Build a Boat, is a tour de force. It may also need a series of trigger warnings for its articulation of the fine-tuned sensitivities of human relations and the multitude of heartbreaks that must be endured.

To be or not to be, you’ll remember. But it’s the next bit that’s important: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles. To act or remain passive, is maybe how you remember it. Feeney’s novel is unequivocal: Build the damn boat.

But what boat? And why? Google “currach boat” for the what. The why is more complicated. It starts in mid-aughts with a teenage mother who dies in childbirth. The resulting son, Jamie, may well have autism, though it’s never said. He is neurodivergent, surely, though. He’s brilliant at math and crushes on the late Iranian mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani. At 13, he is over six feet tall, though he remains boyishly awkward. He struggles with social cues and dislikes colloquialisms (“fits like a glove”) as his use of language to describe his world tilts towards the literal.

At the beginning of the book, Jamie begins a new school in a town in West Ireland. Dominated by Catholic administrators (soccer is discouraged as it’s a “foreign game”), the school nonetheless has some teachers who see Jamie as requiring unique attention. One is Tess, who teaches literature, and another is Tadhg, who teaches woodworking. Jamie’s rougher classmates greet him with violence, but when Tadhg finds Jamie crying in the washroom it isn’t because he’s been beaten (though he has), it’s because he placed second in the school’s math prize competition.

Back to the boat now. Jamie wants to build a perpetual motion machine because he believes it will connect him to the mother he was last connected to during his birth. Tadhg convinces him instead to build a boat, which he proves is never still, floating and drifting as it does on the water. Meanwhile, Tess’s marriage is ending, and the attraction between Tess and Tadhg proceeds in fits and starts. Building the boat takes a village, and Tadhg rounds them up and keeps them focused.

Feeney has a genius for showing us the anxieties of each character, showing us how they move through their lives, not just as material beings, but as psychic basket cases. Hamlet’s question haunts many of the characters in the book. Like the Danish prince, they seek excuses to evade what must be done, and Tadhg is the one who demands honesty, even as he wrestles with his own lack of accountability (he doesn’t do relationships).

We have here a lovely, sensitive, intelligent contemporary novel. Read it.

Elaine Feeney is a writer from the west of Ireland. Her second novel, How to Build a Boat (Harvill Secker) was published in 2023. Her debut novel, As You Were, was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Irish Novel of the Year Award, and won the Kate O’Brien Award, the McKitterick Prize, and the Dalkey Festival Emerging Writer Award. Feeney has published three collections of poetry including The Radio Was Gospel and Rise. Her work has been widely published including, The Paris Review, The Stinging Fly, Poetry Review and Oxford Poetry. Feeney lectures at the University of Galway.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Nov. 7 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 304 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771965851
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771965859