Although her grandmother was renowned short story writer and New Yorker staff writer Mary Lavin, and her mother was Caroline Walsh, Literary editor of the Irish Times, Alice Ryan initially had little desire to become a writer, as she told Ryan Tubridy:
"I had no interest, I was just like – and I remember at school, because I used to do quite well at other subjects, and then English was just like, you'd get Bs and I was like, 'What is this jazz, like?’ And I remember this awful moment in my twenties, or maybe it was my late teens, where my Mum came in and what I used to do is, they had all these books all over the TV room and I would take the biggest book, I would take it out and I really wanted the thick one, to paint my nails on. And my Mum came in one day and her heart just sank. I could see it."
Her mother Caroline thought that all this time Alice had been secretly taking down books and devouring them, but no. She was not a secret book nerd. But fast forward to 2022 and Alice, the non-reading nail-polisher has published her first novel, There’s Been a Little Incident:
"It’s about actually two girls who go missing on the same rainy night in London and the different fates that they both meet. And one of them – Molly – this is not her first rodeo, she has been on the run for years and the question is, now that she’s 29, I mean, should they keep chasing her?"
There’s an enormous cast of characters, between friends and family. Ryan trots out the oft-quoted "write what you know" aphorism and Alice tells him what her aunt thought when she read the novel:
"She was horrified. And she was so annoyed and I was like, ‘What is going on?’ and she was like, ‘I didn’t recognise anyone.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s kind of the point.’ And for me that’s skill, right? The skill is writing the fiction."
The novel is a love letter from Alice to Caroline, but it’s not, in any sense, a memoir. It is, as she says to Ryan, fiction:
"The feelings are real, let me put it that way. The characters are fictional, but the emotions and the depth and, in my case, the grief, you know, is very much real."
The grief that the book deals with is a reflection of Alice’s own real-life grief following the death of her mother Caroline in 2011. Caroline was, Alice says, the sort of person who saw something interesting and worthwhile everywhere she looked:
"The best thing about her was that she was interested in everything. And I really mean that. She would go to a party of, like, you know, say, intellectuals and she would – you'd find her on the stairs, talking to the 14-year-old about the debate competition. She was genuinely, deeply interested in every person. Her interest was entirely democratic, which is something that I really love about her."
Caroline became sick in 2011 and what started out as something seemingly simple, became a medical puzzle as doctors struggled to come up with a diagnosis:
"She’d been on holidays in the summer of 2011 and she’s just had an earache, a really simple earache. And it was just really difficult to shake. She’d been on a few antibiotics and eventually the doctor said, ‘You know, I think there’s something else at play here.’ And it turned out that the thing that was at play was her thyroid and it was malfunctioning."
But Caroline’s thyroid wasn’t just malfunctioning in the sort of way that most thyroid problems manifest themselves:
"She would have over-active thyroid and under-active thyroid, which is really unusual. She was flipping between the two... Her interest for life really dropped away and her engagement and – she became totally insular."
The family became very concerned by what was happening to Caroline. As well as a drastic change in interest, she became lethargic and lost a significant amount of weight. Her mental, as well as her physical health was being very seriously affected:
"What we were told was she would need to get the thyroid removed. It was malfunctioning and she was diagnosed with psychosis... She had thyroid-induced psychosis... To say we were playing catch-up. And our beloved Mum, and she was slipping away from us and we were desperately running to catch up and struggling."
The doctors told the family that they wouldn’t be able to operate on Caroline while she was in a psychotic state, so they hoped that, when she was let out of hospital, just before Christmas, she’d be able to remain stable enough for them to do the surgery. But Caroline was due her last check-up the day before the family was to de-camp to Laois for the Christmas break – and she didn’t attend that check-up.
"When you love someone so much, I thought, ‘We will find her, we will, you know, lock her up, if needs be.’"
Friends and family came to the house to help with the search, and everyone drove around looking for her because, well, that’s what you do in a search. They went to places that they knew Caroline loved and it was Alice who found her at midnight on 21 December on the West Pier in Dún Laoghaire:
"The Coast Guard did pull her body out of the sea and even then – actually, I remember the policeman saying. ‘Did she jump?’ And I, I still – I know it sounds mad – I felt like saying like, ‘Are you crazy? This is my Mum, this is, we’d no – she was the happiest person in the world.’ So, then when her body was pulled out, they said she had a heartbeat. And I thought, ‘Ok, this is it. This is it. We’ve had a terrible fright. We now know, Christ, we know about thyroid and psychosis, so we’re just going to, from here on in, we will, emergency, emergency. But it wasn’t to be and when we got to Vincent’s Hospital, she was pronounced dead at 3am."
You can hear Ryan’s full conversation with Alice by going here.
There’s Been a Little Incident by Alice Ryan is published by Apollo. You can read Charlotte Ryan’s review on RTÉ Culture here.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you may be able to find help here.