Snowflake, the debut novel of 27 year old Irish author Louise Nealon, is clearly targeted at the millennial generation. The dual meaning of the title instantly calls to mind the generational insult towards ‘overly sensitive’ millennials.
The novel follows Debbie, a student in her first year studying English Literature at Trinity College Dublin, as she traverses the opposing worlds of her family’s dairy farm in Kildare, and university life in Dublin. She commutes between these worlds by train, after doing the milking in the morning. Her mother obsessively records her dreams, while her uncle lives in a caravan in the garden, and is responsible for much of Debbie’s education and upbringing.
Nealon, like her protagonist, studied English literature at Trinity and lives on her family farm in County Kildare. The debut novel saw Nealon landing a ‘six figure pre-empt’ at the age of 27. An age which is perhaps reflected in her realistic portrayal of university students.
Debbie’s university world seems true to life. Nealon accurately captures the pre-night out ‘jeans or dress, flats or heels’ conversations perfectly. The subtleties in the hypocrisies of the university characters are both poignant and funny. One such moment is Debbie’s vegan best friend attempting to navigate her way around the dairy farm, while un-ironically owning a t-shirt that says ‘My oat milk frees all the cows from the yard’. Snowflake has some excellent, witty lines.
Yet Snowflake lacks plot drive, which isn’t always necessary, but this campus-novel felt particularly lost without one. The ending was also unsatisfactory, with too many apologies left unsaid.
The novel’s greatest strength was its treatment of the mental health epidemic. Nealon deftly shows that mental health struggles are neither exclusive to young people or to old people, but a complex and changing web.
I won’t insult Nealon by dwelling on a comparison with Sally Rooney. Snowflake will, I believe, be likened to Rooney’s novels Conversations with Friends and Normal People over and over – a comparison the marketing of this novel does not shy away from.
All three novels follow young people studying at Trinity College and experiencing feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome. Yet, while similar themes are covered, the characters themselves and the style of the writing are remarkably different. Snowflake takes place in just one year, following time more fluidly and in more depth than Normal People. Sadly, it is also a less lasting, less pervasive novel.
The film and TV rights to Snowflake have also been sold to Element Pictures, the team responsible for the BBC’s Normal People adaptation, the success of which needs no explanation. Once again this invites comparison to Rooney’s novel, and while I think Snowflake will make a good TV show (especially if they pick up on the dry humour and sarcasm of the characters), it seems destined to sit in the shadow of the phenomenon of Normal People.
Either way, Snowflake skirted close to feeling like a book I had read numerous times before, in slightly different guises. Despite this, I enjoyed it. I found it compelling and a realistic portrayal of young people, university life and the unique pain of attending an English Literature Seminar when you haven’t even read the book.