Set against the political and social instability of 1980s Dublin, Juno Loves Legs is at its heart a great love story, one which burns with a need for survival at all costs, against the odds. Juno and Legs's relationship has a depth vaster than friendship, broader than romance. It swallows the pair up. 'We’d forgotten ourselves entirely,’ Juno says, as the world fades to her and Legs, morphing around them.
The reader would be forgiven for imagining the title etched into a desk or scrawled over a notebook, but this is not a typical romance novel by any stretch. Rather, it’s a novel of memories conjured and crafted, as Juno holds on to the past, even when the present forces her to reconsider everything taken as fact. While writing unsent letters to Legs, she thinks:
‘They fade, memories, even good ones, the ones we want. I’d practise my favourites, learned as if by rote. But no matter, you end up with memories of memories: you get tar from coal, not diamonds. I sat outside of things. Time, quick as a drum roll, flew past.’
Like any great love story, there is always a genesis, a memory worked over and over in the mind until the narrative bows into submission. A moment of collision which changes the course of their lives forever, and in Juno Loves Legs, it happens like this: Juno strikes up an unlikely friendship with Legs in jumping to his defence from school bullies. This becomes the blueprint for their relationship: one defends the other, through thick and thin. However, they are separated when Legs is sent away for committing a violent act. In this forced isolation from one another, Juno pines for Legs. She spends years wrapped up in dreams of marrying Legs, but when they reunite, she discovers he has romantic interests of his own.
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Listen: Karl Geary talks Juno Loves Legs to Ryan Tubridy
The years apart are hard on both of them, with Juno living in abject poverty, trying to keep the house running, while her Dad drinks away any money he can find. He is a violent drunk, destroying the house her mother worked herself to death to maintain. Her Mum works through the night for little money as a seamstress. Much of the time shame keeps her from asking for the money due for her alterations. To ask would be to admit a need, and the politics of pride and shame keeps her from voicing her struggles. Geary employs a gentle touch in writing the class dynamics of pride, and the result is truly gut-wrenching. In this community as in many across the island, it is of the utmost importance to appear self-sufficient, capable. So, there’s a resonant heartache when Juno’s mother drags her Singer sewing machine into the street, while being goaded by the very women whose purses are heavy with owed money. Still, she does not ask. Later, a shopkeeper tells Juno that, ‘In a different world [her mother] might have done anything’.
In the latter part of the novel, Juno finds herself put out of house and home, wandering the streets of Dublin in search of shelter. Her vagrancy is met with the worst of humanity: men offer a bed and a bath only to rescind and harm her, families hold their children close while chasing her from stairwells. This treatment of Juno is reflective of homeless people in Ireland today, from hostile architecture removing any flat surfaces for rough sleepers to the burgeoning housing crisis, putting hotel profits before shelter as a human right. Unable to find safety, Juno huddles on the Ha’penny Bridge, it is here that Legs reunites with her. While she herself has been altered by time, she discovers that he has removed his past like a coat, instead replacing it with a new fiction, a new beginning for himself.