Silence and Shame in “Ordinary Human Failings” – Chicago Review of Books


Megan Nolan’s highly-anticipated sophomore novel carries the author’s essential voice into new and familiar territories. As a writer of essays, criticism, and fiction, Nolan is undoubtedly skilled at expounding facets of culture that divide and unite; her previous work, such as her column in The New Statesmen, explores modern anxieties, aesthetics, ideas of place and belonging, authority, and more. In her intense debut novel, Acts of Desperation, Nolan’s critical perspective was limited to an obsessive heteroromantic relationship to explore ideas about female desires, suffering, and love. Her new novel broadens this lens of obsession with higher stakes, framing the story around a tabloid journalist investigating a reclusive Irish family implicated in a child’s murder in a London housing estate. 

Ordinary Human Failings probes the lives of the Greens, a working-class family burdened by intergenerational shame and failure. In Waterford, Carmel’s future is promising until an unwanted pregnancy leads her family to emigrate from Ireland to England. Despite a fresh start on the continent, Carmel’s extreme disassociation from her pregnancy persists beyond birth, leaving her daughter Lucy lonely and neglected. Meanwhile, Carmel’s brother Richie falls further into alcoholism, patriarch John remains aloof, and Carmel’s mother Rose struggles to hold the family afloat. By the 1990s, their matriarch has died and all members of the family are adrift from one another. So when “strange” little Lucy is identified as a suspect in the murder investigation of a neighborhood toddler, her guilt is a presumed result of a family of “Bad Apples.” 

Yet billing this story as a whodunit thriller is a disjustice to Nolan’s astute understanding of character psychology and political landscapes. The premise—a well-loved toddler is dead, and career man Tom Hargreaves is desperate to break the story of the murder before anyone else—is a false lead. Immediately after Lucy is taken into custody, Hargreaves shepherds the Greens into a hotel expensed by his newspaper, in exchange for exclusive interviews with Carmel, uncle Richie, and grandfather John. There are no pretensions to the predicament, however. Close perspective reveals the reporter’s maneuverings, as well as the family’s knowing acceptance of their manipulation in exchange for privacy (and an open bar tab). We, as readers, primarily learn the context of the Green family’s situation—a far more poignant story than the “murder”—through interviews, tape recordings, and flashbacks. It’s these multiple points of view from a large cast that allow Ordinary Human Failings to cover more ground than Nolan’s debut, touching on topics such as Thatcher-era Britain, ‘90s exploitative tabloids, immigration, addiction, and intimate family dynamics.

Positing a tabloid journalist as a proxy for a media-driven culture is a clever vehicle for truth in a narrative, yet Tom Hargreaves veers close to the ruthless investigator trope of murder mysteries. He does not exist beyond his career, he hunts for answers to a shocking crime, and because the beginning of the novel is mostly from his perspective, one might assume he plays a larger role in this story than he does. He is also a stand-in for the novel’s audience, gripped by the context of the investigation, turning every page determined to discover whether ten-year-old Lucy is responsible for another child’s death. Although he fills the typical “detective” role in a thriller, Tom Hargreaves is also the least interesting character in this story. His motivation for sensationalism does not falter as he considers the idea “[t]here’ll be plenty more” stories like the Greens’s to shock the public. His lack of empathy for the subjects whose lives he aims to publicize does not change; however, the mark of Nolan’s writing is her ability to dimensionalize the inner lives of her characters. Tom’s personality may not evolve like other characters, but his constitution is fascinating if not for the breaks in his determined facade, where we see his moral equivocation, his arrogant dismissal of others as “peasants” despite his need for their readership, and even his sexual passes at Carmel. His humanity peeks through when he reflects on “how small and alone he was almost all of the time.” Such moments of introspection allow Nolan’s grasp on character to shine.

Even the dead matriarch of the Green family, a character far removed from the circumstances leading up to the crime, plays a crucial role in the narrative, despite her absence from most of the novel. Rose Green decides to move her family to a new country in an act of maternal protection as well as deep shame. In the years prior to her death, she seems to mourn her past and its potential: “That place was her home, she had no home now, and she suspected that no one would ever apologise to her for this loss.” Rose cannot protect her daughter Carmel from this same sense of loss. Nor can she protect her granddaughter Lucy from inheriting certain trauma. 

Each introspective passage, too, peels away at a larger picture hidden beyond the individual. Nolan is careful to expose the circumstances of societal structures that harm these characters. The option of abortion, for instance, was “more like an urban legend, a big forbidding skull and crossbones” to Carmel, “the physical materiality of her desire seemed unbroachable. There was no thought in her urge, and it seemed not to have to do with anything that had ever happened in history before, to any other person.” Yet it’s clear Carmel cannot extract herself from circumstance, no matter how much she reimagines reality to ignore her problems. The Green family’s emigration from Ireland is presumably motivated by the landscape of an anti-abortionist and staunchly Catholic state. British neighbors and Tom’s shared implicit bias against the family are also implied products of Thatcherism. Nonetheless, Ordinary Human Failings is not a novel explicitly aimed at showcasing the shortcomings of society and culture, and Nolan is not interested in providing readers with clear answers to anything. 

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The ultimate draw of the novel is a recurring fascination in Nolan’s work: the notion of personal context and how it shapes a human life. As the title implies, Ordinary Human Failings is a novel of choices. Rather than gripping readers with shock value, the author’s repertoire consists of “ordinary human failings such as hangovers, broken hearts, etc etc etc.” For Carmel and her family, these failings are “the network of absences and silences she had facilitated which led to this point.” No life can be watered down to a singular event; each person is comprised of everyday moments that may lead to disappointment, disruption, or even danger. For Nolan, truth becomes a “malleable” thing. It’s in the mundane where one finds the story. 

Ordinary Human Failings
by Megan Nolan
Little Brown and Company
Published on February 6, 2024

Caitlin Stout

Caitlin M. Stout is a writer mostly found in Chicago. She holds an MA in Writing and Publishing and a BA in English from DePaul University. Her fiction has appeared in Motley. She is the managing editor of Arcturus, as well as a daily editor at the Chicago Review of Books. You can find her on Twitter @caitlinmstout.


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