Inside a bright mind | Review of Booker-longlisted ‘How to Build a Boat’ by Elaine Feeney 

The only quibble with this novel is the information overload that can get overwhelming at times

Updated - September 20, 2023 10:57 pm IST

Published - September 14, 2023 01:18 pm IST

Poet and novelist Elaine Feeney is one of four Irish writers on the Booker Prize longlist this year, and her story of pain and loss raises some universal questions about parenting in a world falling apart. The 13-year-old protagonist, Jamie O’Neill, is neurodiverse but the author doesn’t mention his condition by name. Inspired by her son who was hyperlexic as a young child, Jamie, a bright mind, struggles amid people.

He has his quirks and is happiest among trees, books with dust jackets, patterns (like the one mathematics genius Maryam Mirzakhani used to draw), cats, rain that comes with wind, Edgar Allan Poe and rivers. His favourite season is winter, November his favourite month, “for November is predictable”, and red his favourite colour.

As Feeney unravels the layers, we learn that Jamie lives in Emory in western Ireland with his father Eoin with whom he is on first-name terms. And that both are trying to come to terms with the death of Jamie’s mother at childbirth. “Grief was profoundly different for both humans. One felt an intense anger he had never recovered from, the other knew something was missing, a vacuum where a mother should fit, and he had a fixed determination to fill it.”

Inventing a perpetual motion machine

The mother, Noelle Doyle, was a champion swimmer but her promising career was paused when she became pregnant, before being cruelly cut short, and Jamie, no wonder perhaps, is drawn to water. Jamie views a single surviving clip of his mother at a swimming competition on loop and becomes obsessed with inventing a ‘Perpetual Motion Machine’. This leads him to two teachers at his secondary school, Tess Mahon and Tadhg Foley, both fighting their own inner demons.

Author Elaine Feeney

Author Elaine Feeney | Photo Credit:

But they will gently guide Jamie towards building a boat, his version of a perpetual motion machine. The most poignant bits of the book are when Jamie and Eoin, or Tess and Foley, try to understand the world around them and make it a better place. In an interview to, Feeney said, “Considering the book retrospectively, my writing impetus was parental anxiety: can we live in an inclusive society by recognising each other, accepting one another without explanation of categorisation? Can we be tolerant? Essentially, will he be OK? It’s like a primal concern for all parents.”

And since she is from the west of Ireland, Feeney is always “imagining and reimagining” the place — “its socio economics; geo-political landscape; pagan versus Christian traditions; new cultures; power and who holds it; the post-colonial effect on language, emigration, class and agriculture”. She is also concerned with the history of a deeply oppressive church regime, “and the aftershock we grapple with, culturally and systemically”.

The only quibble, if we may call it that, is that being research-driven, the novel becomes overwhelming at times with too much information.

How to Build a Boat
Elaine Feeney
Harvill Secker

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