“I would like to make things beautiful, but a tawdry and repulsive kind of beauty. A braver sort than people have from birth. Sexy zombies on a bicep. That sort of thing”
The best books are ones that transport you to other places, other worlds, and allow you vicariously live other lives, albeit briefly. The important books put you inside those places so completely that you comprehend things that you haven’t lived yourself; you empathise in a more rounded way than perhaps you did before; stay with you and change how you perceive the world. Needlework may not be an easy read, but Deirdre Sullivan has written an important book. Much like Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, it should be required reading for everyone who is/was/plans to have a teenager.
Ces is seventeen and wants to be a tattoo artist. She practices her designs on pig skin she buys cheap, using a homemade tattoo machine. She keeps her hobby hidden. Ces has had a lot of practice keeping things hidden. She knows that the same people who buy endless ham from the deli she works in, the people who are the reason she has to constantly operate the terrifying slicer, would deem her disgusting for tattooing the skin of the same animal in her home. It’s one of hundreds of observations of hypocrisy in the book. Ces has a lot of practice spotting the difference between words and actions.
“There’s something really sad about looking at children. I mean, they are so easy to destroy. All it takes is words if you are good with words. A child will love you no matter what. They don’t know any better, do they, children? They don’t know that Mam and Dad are people and that people suck and always disappoint you in the end”
We learn that Ces is finding it hard to settle in a new school; that she needs the money she earns from her part-time job for essentials not luxuries; that she has a fraught relationship with her mother who drinks too much and mothers too little. Much like tattooing, Sullivan injects tiny sharp uncomfortable pieces of information into her narrative, and then shades it in with increasingly detailed flashbacks. It is almost halfway through the book before you have the full story of what Ces and her mother have been through. Needlework begins where most books end – Ces has ‘escaped’ her abuser and is living in the ‘happy ever after’. It skilfully shows not just how difficult it is to heal hurts that are so deep under your skin they are a part of you, but how hard it is to afford a new life when economic abuse is just another thing that’s not ever talked about.
“I can see the thin blue veins threading under her skin, pale as parchment weaving in and out. The colours there are intricate and lovely. It takes so much to keep a person going, so many things click in to make it right. Every bit of us is body art, stuck together with flesh and who we are”.
Ces is an amazing, broken, powerful, angry, hopeful, brave, intelligent, resentful, inspiring and oh so relatable young woman. You will root for her as your heart breaks for her. She is so determined to reclaim her life, to not be a victim, to create beauty out of chaos that you will be a better person for having spent time with her. Needlework confronts difficult subject matter head on. Everything that Catholic Ireland likes to sweep under the rug is bluntly confronted here, but this is not misery porn, a litany of abuses recalled for whoever those ghouls are that buy books with titles like “Mommy how could you?” Instead it is artful, thoughtful, and utterly rage inducing. You will feel Ces is real and want to hug her and make her better – and just like it would be if Ces were real, you will understand that some things are not that easy to fix. This book is brutal, and yet it is beautiful. Go read it. It is important.