Orchid and the Wasp

A Novel
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“A gem of a novel.”—Elle
“A winning debut.”—The New Yorker
“Caoilinn Hughes is a massive talent.”—Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Light We Cannot See


An unforgettable young woman navigates Dublin, London and New York, striving to build a life raft for her loved-ones amidst economic and familial collapse.
In this dazzlingly original debut novel, award-winning Irish writer Caoilinn Hughes introduces a heroine of mythic proportions in the form of one Gael FoessA tough, thoughtful, and savvy opportunist, Gael is determined to live life on her own terms. Raised in Dublin by single-minded, careerist parents, Gael learns early how a person’s ambitions and ideals can be compromised— and she refuses to let her vulnerable, unwell younger brother, Guthrie, suffer such sacrifices.
When Gael’s financier father walks out on them during the economic crash of 2008, her family fractures. Her mother, a once-formidable orchestral conductor, becomes a shadow. And a fateful incident prevents Guthrie from finishing high school. Determined not to let her loved-ones fall victim to circumstance, Gael leaves Dublin for the coke-dusted social clubs of London and Manhattan’s gallery scene, always working an angle, but beginning to become a stranger to those who love her.
Written in electric, heart-stopping prose, Orchid & the Wasp is a novel about gigantic ambitions and hard-won truths, chewing through sexuality, class, and politics, and crackling with joyful, anarchic fury. It challenges bootstraps morality with questions of what we owe one another and what we earn. A first novel of astonishing talent, Orchid & the Wasp announces Caoilinn Hughes as one of the most exciting literary writers working today.


Praise for Orchid & the Wasp:

Shortlisted for the 2018 Butler Literary Award
Library Journal: "Best Summer Debut Novels"

“Ireland produces a new literary star at a rate of one a month, it seems; first among equals for 2018, however, has to be Caoilinn Hughes.”
— Irish Echo

“A winning debut novel...Hughes, a poet, touches the prose with a comic wand… Orchid and the Wasp delivers a fantasy of competence, the kind that is in dialogue, if not always complete agreement, with morality.”
– Katy Waldman, The New Yorker

"A gem of a novel about the way we live now."

"You won't forget Gael Foess."
– NPR.org

“Luminous… sparkles with acuity and concision.... [Gael] is an indomitable, highly adaptable character who can navigate through tumultuous times and wildly disparate environments with ingenuity and grit.” 
– Los Angeles Review of Books

'This arch début novel's ... satiric impulse—toward art-world hypocrisy, late capitalism, heterosexual love—is unsparing and ambitious'  
– The New Yorker

"A remarkable, propulsive debut novel ... No precis can adequately convey the novel’s startling, impressionistic prose, nor its corrosive humour. Jewels of observation glitter amid the earthy gags. ... Exuberant ... it zings with energy, ambition and daring."
- The Times Literary Supplement

"Caoilinn Hughes’s debut novel, Orchid & the Wasp, has the fluid gait of something alive...At once exuberant and incisive, Hughes’s writing escapes simple characterization while somehow remaining welcoming...This is not simply a coming of age tale, nor is it an experiment in narrative philosophy. What is it, then? I’m not sure, other than that it’s something new."
– Taylor Lannamann, Tin House

‘Extraordinary... This is a difficult novel to do justice to, for it is brimming with ideas, and the pace of their arrival and quality of their treatment is noteworthy... Orchid represents an exciting first step into prose for Caoilinn Hughes.'
– Oxford Review

"Hughes has created something special in Gael, who is her own woman in a way we don’t see often enough in books: brave, complex, fractured, intelligent, resourceful, ruthless and unforgiving... Orchid & the Wasp is this year’s Conversations with Friends...Hughes casts her unique gaze, her artistic, analytical and emotional intelligence, on ... our capitalist world and the personal, political and social ramifications implicit in our acquiescence to, or indeed, championing of, its values."
– Irish Times
"Orchid & the Wasp, by Caoilinn Hughes, is making waves because it is fiercely bright and moves like a bullet train."
Sebastian Barry, bestselling author of Days Without End, for the Irish Times

“Orchid and the Wasp is a hugely entertaining novel full of wit, intellect and sharp observations... Akin to Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends, Orchid and the Wasp is a modern female coming-of- age story... Caoilinn Hughes is definitely one to watch.”
– RTE Culture Magazine

"Not since Paul Murray's Skippy Dies have I read such an original Irish novel... Dazzling, heady fiction. Hughes is an award-winning poet and it's barely concealable. She simply dances on the page, her imagination is riotous, her flawed characters have shape and colour and sometimes heartbreaking humanity."
– Irish Independent

"Caoilinn Hughes is an award-winning poet and her background in poetry shines through Orchid & the Wasp's audacious and meticulously crafted prose. It's a mesmeric, immersive, often hilarious reading experience, driven by the force of the imagery-rich writing and the cast of distinctive characters.... Gael is a fresh and fascinating picaresque heroine - admirable, reprehensible, empowered, bisexual, containing multitudes, the kind of woman rarely depicted in fiction.... Her high-wire act is exhilarating to witness, as, throughout the novel, is Hughes's own."
– Sunday Independent

"Hugely ambitious and richly inventive." 
 –Irish Examiner

"Caoilinn Hughes’s highly ambitious fiction debut contains multitudes. … Kick-ass, whip-smart and with “a tongue like a catapult”, Gael belongs to a venerable tradition of feisty heroines. … Some serious intellectual themes are explored: the crisis of late capitalism; the redemptive power of art and love; free expression in sexual matters; and much else besides. But maybe most strikingly, Gael Foess makes a telling contribution to the unlikeable female narrator debate… readers are going to love her."
– Sunday Times

"A remarkable debut novel ... intellectual fiction that provides a bracing and occasionally withering account of upper echelon Irish life."
– Sunday Business Post 

"The novel showcases Hughes's talent as both a shrewd student of character and an astute observer of contemporary life ... [introducing] one of those literary characters whose life is so vividly depicted it's easy to imagine it continuing beyond the last page of this refreshingly honest novel."
– Shelf Awareness

"Hughes’ sharp and, at times, hilarious observations call to mind the unblinking writing and dysfunctional families not only of Jane Austen, but also Christina Stead and Jonathan Franzen. Orchid & the Wasp is a deceptively entertaining novel about merit and ambition, society and responsibility, and self-determination and fate, in which Hughes upends expectations and asks big questions, especially about obligation and love, without breaking stride, even for a moment."
– Readings Monthly

"The excellent debut novel from Irish poet Caoilinn Hughes sees a compelling female protagonist navigate social upheaval in the wake of the financial crisis, as well as dealing with a complex family life.... The novel also has a Franzenesque flair for showing the interconnectedness of western society." 
– Hot Press

“Debut novelist Hughes, an award-winning poet, employs wry, crackling prose to proffer existential questions about what constitutes a meaningful life…. This inventive book will entice readers who prefer the ambiguity of questions to the simplicity of answers.”
– Library Journal

“[A] visceral and electrifying debut … in Gael, Hughes has created a mesmerizing and compelling force.”
– Booklist

"Hughes delivers a compelling exploration of what it means to create art, skewering the arbitrary restrictions of art-world gatekeepers along the way. At the emotional heart of this book lies a darker question, though: What does it mean to make a performance of your own life, in service of your family, when the cost might be to lose them forever? As strange, musical, and carefully calculated as its unusual heroine."
– Kirkus

“Orchid & the Wasp is a gorgeous novel told in an onrush of wit and ferocity. Art-forging, smack-talking, long-distance-running Gael Foess, three times smarter than everyone around her, proves to be an unforgettable heroine, and her journey will rattle your most basic assumptions about money, ambition, and the nature of love. Caoilinn Hughes is a massive talent.”
 ANTHONY DOERR, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Light We Cannot See
“A razor sharp wit and an astonishing psychological and emotional perceptiveness combine to yield uncommonly rich portraiture in this bracing book by a deadly talented writer, in prose so refined one slows to savor each beautifully unfolding sentence. Unsentimental, yet sneakily moving and given to surprising bouts of joy, Orchid & the Wasp becomes a referendum on the resiliency of selflessness in a contemporary world steeped in the logic of ambitious self-advancement.”
― MATTHEW THOMAS, New York Times bestselling author of We Are Not Ourselves

“Though the stories she tells work their way through elaborate worlds, it is her characters, detailed with sharp and subtle grace, which power the engine of Caoilinn Hughes's vivid prose.”
– AMELIA GRAY, author of Isadora and Gutshot

“Caoilinn Hughes has given us an unforgettable character in Gael – an unflinchingly wise and wise-cracking guide through our fractured times. Hers is a story that holds the fun-house mirror to the society we have built of greed and twisted finance. From the doomed Irish boom to the Occupy movement, the novel lays bare the impoverished spirit that led to economic collapse while providing us a path out of it. By turns poetic, hilarious and raw, this novel gives us hope that love and the retrieval of spirit are not only achievable, but worth pursuing to the very last sentence.”
― ANA MENÉNDEZ, Pushcart Prize-winning author of In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd

Orchid & the Wasp is an ambitious, richly inventive and highly entertaining account of the way we live now. Caoilinn Hughes writes with authority and insight, and her novel is as up-to-date as tomorrow's financial-page headlines.”
 JOHN BANVILLE​, Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sea
"​Orchid & t​he Wasp
 is a tremendously engaging novel, brimming with sparky humor and astute observations. Caoilinn Hughes' prose fizzes with wit and intelligence. A joy to read."​ 
 DANIELLE MCLAUGHLIN, Saboteur Award-winning author of Dinosaurs On Other Planets

“Gael, the young heroine of Orchid​ ​& the Wasp, is a magnificent and assured creation, breathtakingly smart, never self-pitying, impossible for others to manage, my favorite discovery this year. ​Hughes's characters​ are rare, like no one you've read before. This is an entirely original novel, dazzling and beautiful, disturbingly cold and insistent.”
 DAVID VANN​, bestselling author of Bright Air Black and Aquarium

“In lush, envy-inducing prose we’re introduced to Gael Foess, the spikiest adult-in-training since Lolita, who has parents worthy of a Roald Dahl novel, in their poor caretaking efforts and self-absorption. We can only hang on in wonder as we witness the savvy Gael’s progression through life from such beginnings. Caoilinn Hughes’s crafted, intricate language is a joy and her characters strut their many flaws with panache. Orchid & the Wasp is an up-to-the-minute, radiant début from a deeply talented writer.”
― NUALA O’CONNOR, author of Miss Emily

"Fresh, playful and exuberant: Hughes has arrived with a heady style that is full of surprise and invention.”
– PAUL LYNCH, Prix Libr’à Nous-winning author of Red Sky in Morning 

"Caoilinn Hughes is the real thing - an urgent, funny, painstaking and heartfelt writer. Orchid & the Wasp is a startling debut full of the moral complexity, grief and strange bewilderments of humanity. As the world spins ever more quickly in response to the demands of grifters, parasites and liars, this book offers a troubling, beautiful and wise response."
 A.L. KENNEDY, Costa Prize-winning author of Day and Serious Sweet


***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Caoilinn Hughes

It’s our right to be virgins as often as we like, Gael told the girls surrounding her like petals round a pollen packet.

“Just imagine it,” she said. “Louise. Fatima. Deirdre Concannon.” She pronounced their names like accusations. She snuck the tip of her index finger into each of their mouths and made their cheeks go: pop. pop. pop. “I did mine already with this finger,” she said. The girls flinched and wiped their taste buds on their pinafores. “Blood dotted the bathroom tiles but it wasn’t a lot and it wasn’t as sore as like . . . piercing your own ears without ice,” she concluded ominously. “And now I don’t have to obsess over it like all these morons. You should all do it tonight. We’ll talk tomorrow and I’ll know if you’ve done it or not.”

Tiny hairs on their ears trembled at her inaudible breath like Juliet’s. Gravely, she confessed: “Some of you will need capsules all your life. All the way to your wedding night because of being Muslim or really really Christian. Wipe your snot, Miriam. It’s a fact of life. It’s also helping people. Boys will think they’re taking something from you, when the capsule cracks. But you’ll know better,” she said. “You’ll know there was nothing to take.”

Gael was eleven. It was her last term of primary school. Perhaps that was why the proposition backfired. The girls were getting ready to fly off to some other wealthy, witheringly beautiful leader. But Gael wasn’t disturbed by this. She no longer needed a posse. It would be tidier if they fell away than having to break them off.

“Really really Christian like your brother?” Deirdre replied. “Isn’t he an altar boy?”

Gael rolled her eyes so dramatically it gave her a back-of-socket headache. “He hasn’t got a hymen, Deirdre, so he’s obviously irrelevant.”

Deirdre and Louise’s mirth was exacerbated by the fact that Miriam’s tears had now formed a terra-cotta paste with the foundation she’d tried on at the bus-stop pharmacy earlier. How much would the virgin pills cost, Becca wanted to know. What would Gael price them at?

“What-ever,” Gael said. “What does that matter? Pocket money is what. Everyone’ll want them. Hundreds if not millions of people, Rebecca. So choose.” She challenged their noncommittal natures, looking from girl to concave girl. “Well, are you or aren’t you? In?” She addressed the dandruffy crowns of their heads. Of late, they’d become less worthwhile spending time with. Even playing sports, they didn’t want to sweat. Headbutting nothing, the chimney-black sweep of her hair kicked forward and she thrust them off like a sudden squall that separates what’s flyaway from what’s fixture. Stupid girls, she thought as the lunch bell trilled and they straggled toward their classrooms. Back to times tables: the slow, stupid common operations.

Turning her back on the blackboard, she took a bottle of TippEx from her bag and began painting her nails a corrective white. It smelled of Guthrie’s bedroom. Acrid. Concentrated. Tissues fouled with paint from cleaning his brushes. Exoneration. Her little brother: the acolyte. On the ninth nail, she lifted her head from the fumes to find Deirdre Concannon striding into the room alongside the Guidance Counselor, who approached Gael’s desk with a blob of tuna-mayo in the corner of her puckered mouth, a mobile phone held out and a polite invitation for Gael to take her depraved influence elsewhere. The number Gael dialed was familiar. Though, as Mum was out of town, it was to be an unfamiliar fate.

Jarleth had sent a car to collect them and take them to his work several hours ago. On the phone, his secretary had informed Gael as to the make of the car and the name of the driver. (Both Mercedes.) There’d been no chastisement thus far, other than an afternoon confined to a windowless meeting-room penitentiary in his office building.

In the same school but two years behind his sister, Guthrie had been encouraged to go home too when his whole class concluded their postlunch prayer in perfect unison: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, Hymen.” Gael was already waiting at the school gate when Guthrie had come dragging his satchel-crucifix across the tarmac, in utter distress and confusion.

His blue eyes were red-rimmed as a seagull’s by the time he finished his homework under the artificial lights of Barclays’ Irish headquarters at 2 Park Place in Dublin’s city center, just around the corner (though worlds apart) from the National Concert Hall, where they often watched their mother yield a richer kind of equity from her orchestra.

Guthrie spoke quietly into his copybook. “You always do this when Mum’s gone.”

“I said I’m sorry.”

“But you’re not.” He made a convincingly world-weary noise for a ten-year-old.

Their mother was Principal Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra—one of Ireland’s two professional orchestras— with whom she gave some hundred concerts a year, on top of guest conductorships where she might perform eight shows in a week, hold interviews, benefits, meetings, recordings, travel . . . generally returning home prostrate.

Gael searched for Ys in the ends of her black hair. Absently, she said, “How was I to know my idea’d make all the sissies go berserk?”

Guthrie’s wispy beige hair kissed the polished pine table where he rested his head on his arm. He was slowly translating Irish sentences from his textbook with his left hand. He was a ciotóg. A lefthanded person. Meaning: “strange one.”

Ffadó, ó,

A long time ago

bhí laoch mór ar a dtugtar Cúchulainn.

there was a great hero warrior of the name named called Cúchulainn.

He stopped writing and let the pencil tip rest on the page like a Ouija board marker. After a while, he lifted it and moved it to a blank page where he began drawing Cúchulainn in profile, sword brandished. It was a giant weapon with an intricate hilt. Guthrie gave his hero long flowing locks and a chain-mail vest and shin guards. When all the details had been filled in, Guthrie began to add squiggles all around the figure and wild loops in the air—childish in comparison to Cúchulainn’s frenzied expression.

“Are they clouds?” Gael asked.

A barely perceptible shift of his head. “Trees?”

“Waves,” he said softly.

“Wait.” She considered the sketch anew. “He’s in the sea? With those heavy clothes on?”

Guthrie exaggerated the hero’s grimace and drew a twisted cloak in place of saying yes. He strengthened the line of the chin and the nostril brackets, for defiance. “He’s fighting the ocean.”

Watching the pencil go, Gael wondered at this. Cúchulainn battling the humongous Atlantic. An invisible duel, in slow, deliberate motion. Had he no mind for reward or reputation, should he win? Or rescue, should he lose? Maybe he was just proving something to himself; testing the muscle of his character, no thought of audience. There aren’t viewing posts in towers of water. No adjudication. Why else would a person take on the tireless sea but to learn the strength of his own current? Guthrie lifted his head to reveal a pale yellow mark where his cheek had been pressed against his forearm.

“That’s what it feels like,” he said, evenly, erasing some lines from the drawing and brushing the gray rubber scraps to the floor. “The way you get dragged in the white part.”

“What feels like that?”

Some moments passed without answer.

“Oh,” Gael said, realizing. “That doesn’t sound relaxing.” “It’s not.”

“But you know it’s only gravity, dragging you down, right? It’s not like, a monster or Satan or anything.”

Guthrie seemed to think about this. “It’s me,” he said. “The warrior?”

He shook his head and Gael half expected feathers of pale hair to come falling off like when you shake a dead bird. “The one dragging.”

“Guthrie! That’s not a good thing to think. It’s not your fault.” Gael said this, though she knew it was a lie to make things livable. Her parents had sat her down a few weeks ago to explain the situation. “Your brother doesn’t have epilepsy. He only thinks he does,” Jarleth had said. Sive had looked dismayed by that explanation and had taken over. “It’s called somatic delusional disorder, Gael. I’m sure you’ll want to look it up. But what’s important is that he’s physically healthy,” she’d said, “but there’s one small, small part of his brain that isn’t well. The doctors say when he’s older, it might be easier to address him directly about it, with counseling. Right now, he gets extremely stressed and anxious, aggressively so, if we talk to him about the disorder. He thinks we’re telling him he’s not sick. Which he is, just not in the way he thinks. So it’s better for everyone to treat it as what Guthrie believes it to be. And that’s epilepsy.” What Gael took from this was that her brother was too young to understand the truth and it was part of his sickness that he couldn’t.

“Guth?” Gael repeated, “It’s not your fault.” “Dad says so.”

A clout of anger to the chest. “Dad’s wrong.” “He’s mad at me.”

“He’s just . . . frustrated to see you break something every time you have a fit.”

“It’s not on purpose.” “I know.”

“I don’t control it.” “I know that.”

“If it was to . . . If I just wanted to skip PE, Miss McFadden would just let me do extra arts and crafts so long as I don’t plug stuff in or use scissors or knives or strong glue, she said I can. Or even something else.”

Gael made a shocked face. “She must’ve been drunk or something. McFadden’s a prick.”

“She can tell that you think that. You make her mean. She said you’re arrogant but I told her you’re nicer when you’re not at school.”

“Who cares about nice.”

“She said, ‘That’s convenient.’ ”

“It’d be convenient if she got mad cow disease from a burger.” “Don’t, Gael.” Tears surged in his eyes again. “I like her.”

“Fine, sorry, I take it back! No mad cow disease for Miss McFadden. She’s probably vegetarian, Guthrie, don’t cry.”

“It’s not—” he said hoarsely.

Gael took his hand from his mouth, where he was chewing on the outer heel of his palm. “Don’t do that. Please tell me what’s wrong.” He tried to explain but sobbing hampers syntax. Gael pieced together the howled-out word clusters. Dad had warned him he’d have to be moved to Special School if he kept having fits. “But it’s . . . not special . . . special is . . . special . . . means . . .”

“It’s a euphemism,” Gael said. A word she’d learned recently and learned well.

Guthrie blinked at her rapidly. This was new information. “A what?”

“A euphemism. Here.” She took his pencil. “You learn it and say it to Dad if he ever threatens that again. You-fa-mism. It means when one word is just a nice way to say something worse. And it’s a lie, Guth. There’s no way you’d have to move schools.”

“Dad wouldn’t just say it.”

“He doesn’t see it as a lie. He sees it as a way to protect you. He’ll say whatever he thinks will work, to keep you safe. Does Mum know?”


“That Dad said that.”

Guthrie shrugged. He was looking at the word Gael wrote in block letters on the page beside his drawing. Underneath the Irish homework. He was catching his breath. “She never said it.” He took the pencil back up and began to graze it across the whole drawing, diagonally, hazing it in lead.

“Hey!” Gael pulled the copybook from him before it was ruined. She slapped it shut and slotted it in his schoolbag. It was annoying how often their mother was touring these days. She should be dealing with this. “Look at me,” Gael said. “You didn’t have a fit today. Even with . . . your classmates taunting you . . . like silly little dipshits.” She didn’t add: because of me.

He turned his face from her, to the door, where money missionaries in drab suits and skull-accentuating hairdos passed by the glass panel.

Gael watched the quiver of her brother’s shoulder blades. The handholds of his vertebrae. “Come on, Guth. If he comes in and sees your eyes all red still . . .”

“Those estimates submitted this morning—” Their father’s voice at the end of the corridor carried in as it would through state-of-theart soundproofing. “—having you on . . . fourteen basis points . . . thirteen too many.” With only the length of the hallway to prepare for his arrival, Gael got up and paced the room, checking behind the freestanding whiteboard and testing the wall of locked filing cabinets until one opened. She rooted inside and pulled out a roll of Sellotape. “Quick,” she said, twirling Guthrie’s swivel chair to face her and biting off a length of the tape. “Stay still.”

He pushed back from her. “What are you doing?”

Jarleth’s voice loudened. “—who they take their cues from. He’ll call it how he sees it.”

“Trust me,” she said, wiping his tears with her thumb, which didn’t dry them at all.


“Don’t try to talk,” she said, and plastered the Sellotape across his chin horizontally, so that his lower lip became huge and half-peeledback and his pink gums showed like a cranky gelada monkey. “It won’t hurt. I promise.” She wrestled him to connect another length of tape from his temples to the base of his cheekbones, packing his puffy eyes into a tight squint. Shushing her brother’s protestations, she braced against his piddly hook punches and completed the collage of his face. On the chair, they wheeled along the table, spinning as they went: the schlepping planet and its beleaguered moon. The last sticky swath gave him a piggy nose from which mucus-water dribbled, threatening to make the whole composition come unstuck.

The door had opened and Jarleth stood there, refastening his watch, like an actor stepping onto the stage mid–costume change. He considered his progeny aloofly. The lines would come to him in due course, or some midmanager would prompt him. This wasn’t an important scene.

Gael had jumped to attention, then felt somewhat abased at having done so. Such obeisance. She bent down, not in genuflection but to rummage through her bag for her pocket mirror. Handing it to Guthrie, she said, “We’re playing Who Am I.” Jarleth gave her a Playing, is it? look. His straight eyelashes pointed at her, then moved to the beverages that had been served to them. A can of Sprite for Guthrie. Sparkling water for Gael, who had asked for coffee, but the receptionist had tucked her chin into her chest and had declared Ms. Foess “very sophisticated altogether takes after her father doesn’t she but I don’t think your mammy’d be happy if we sent you home all jittery now would she missus?” Gael had given her best tsk in reply: the sound of a control-alt-delete command. “If you’re going to use third person, commit to it,” Gael had said. “I’ll have sparkling water. Pellegrino, please.”

Guthrie hadn’t dared to open the compact mirror to guess who he was supposed to be, but at least the disguise had worked. Horseplay trumped waterworks in their father’s eyes.

“It’s ten past three,” Jarleth said. “Since you two have run out of homework, I’ll have to call Carla.”

“Oh Dad,” Gael said. “Don’t call Carla.” To Gael, Carla was the most depressing kind of adult—the kind that sees children as a separate species, blind to the puerility of her own life. Girls’ nights out on indisposable income. Deliberately limited vocabulary. Lip-gloss mania. Guthrie didn’t like Carla because of her general negligence and bad cooking. Their mother liked her threatlessness.

Indifferent, Jarleth took his mobile phone from the breast pocket of his suit jacket and spun it the right way up like a cutthroat razor. The suit was that classic navy-gray color that exists only on the suit spectrum. It had a muted pinstripe and was paired with a crisp white shirt with sloping collar corners, silver button cuff links (that had been no one’s gift to him) and a silver and blue tie patterned with a tight grid. His white-gold Claddagh ring looked attractive against his spring tan. He’d gone out cycling for hours on Sunday after mass and the sun shone down on him, he declared upon return, sanctimonious on his carbon cloud. (He never wore cycling gloves or shaved his legs: the two most effeminate aspects of cycling culture. The spandex was just practical.) In the office, he was a bit like a bride in her gown alongside all the bridesmaids, in that none of his colleagues—even fellow executives—dared to wear the same shade of dominion. It was true, he wore it very well. When he stood in the daylight, the high thread count made the suit appear pale blue, though this room had no windows. Today was one of those rare days when Jarleth hadn’t matched anything with his eyes, which he liked to think of as green, though they were brown as hundred-euro banknotes dropped in a puddle.

“You dropped something,” Gael said, to divert his attention from finding Carla’s number. Gael threw her only banknote onto the carpet as she stretched. There goes Susan’s hymen pill deposit.

Jarleth looked at the folded fiver. “Buy yourself a coffee.” He glanced at his watch.

“Tell you what,” Gael said. Her father preferred propositions to questions. She was well trained to please him. The technique had the opposite effect on her teachers, but parents pay cash and report cards are easily forged. “We’ll go to Stephen’s Green Shopping Center till you’re done,” she said, tilting her head toward Guthrie. “I’ll hold his hand.”

Jarleth studied her with some seriousness. “You have time to kill because your teachers were too provincial to appreciate your business idea—clever, if low-margin and most certainly age-inappropriate— and now you’d like to fritter away that hard-won time in a shopping center?”

“I’ve karate at half shix,” Guthrie said, or at least that was what it sounded like through the Sellotape matrix. “Buth I can not go if it’s ease—easiel . . . Thath?”

 “Market research?” Gael lifted her shoulders to her ears in a cutesy shrug.

“Walter Lippmann had a great name for the masses that congregate in shopping malls instead of libraries,” Jarleth said. “ ‘The bewildered herd.’ They trample each other down for discount espresso machines. You’ve seen it.”

“We already have an espresso machine,” Gael said. “There’ll be something else you want.”

“I might need something.”

“What do you need? Tell me what you need. What your brother needs.” Jarleth strode over to the tabletop phone to dial 1. “If I’d only known my children were deprived. Anything, Gael. I’ll have Margaret put in an order, whatever it is. Next-day delivery.”

“I get the point,” Gael said, glancing at Guthrie repentantly, then refocusing.

“What point?” Jarleth thrust one hand into his trouser pocket and pushed his stomach out so that his tie slipped to the side and Gael could see the dark coiled hairs of his lower belly through the slits in his strained shirt. He used his body like this on purpose: the body language of an older, uglier, larger man; his form unambiguated by an undershirt. This seemed to make him all the more attractive to women of her mother’s age, and younger, Gael had observed of late.

“What’s my point, Gael?” He always managed to keep his full lips—the same ballet shoe color as the rest of his face—relaxed, even when the words coming out of them weren’t.

Gael put on her straightlaced voice. “My time’s more valuable than the time it would take to walk to Stephen’s Green to go shopping.”


Thankfully, he never said “good girl” like relatives and teachers and strangers. Gael hated the phrase in the way she hated people who mixed chocolate with fruit. A denigrating thing to say. It even had the sound of a gag. G-g. A cooing baby sound. Worst of all was good girl, Gael. Miss McFadden had paid sorely for that in fourth class.

“Good,” her father repeated. “What else?”

“Huh?” Gael skimmed her mind for What Else.

The landline phone on the table rang shrilly. Jarleth picked up and listened. “Tell him I’m on a conference call with London. I’ll be there when he sees me.” He spanked the phone to its cradle, gave a sharp sigh and frowned at Guthrie, then at Gael. “Who is he, then? Picasso’s Weeping Woman?”

A grin ripped through her concentration. Gael tapped Guthrie on the knee, where the mirror sat in his palm. He opened it and held it at arm’s length to try to take himself in. For a moment, nothing registered. They waited. Then, it came as the kind of wave you see at the last minute and you have no choice but to duck under. His face bulged through the tape and the composition slipped apart, taking all the fine down of his cheeks away with it. The laughter was so against his will that his eyes were going again. Straining to make out what he was saying, soon Gael was at it too and it didn’t occur to her to stand outside herself to check for giggling; to alter herself toward the caustic, brusque laughter of men. At last, Guthrie steadied him- self and sputtered it out. “Deirdre Concannon,” he said.

“Asshole in one!” Gael clapped her hands once. She turned for her father’s reaction or reprimand, but he was no longer there and the door was shut.

A taxi arrived soon after to take them home. Jarleth said he’d be late and to use the money on the hall table for takeout. Not to wait up.

Q & A

A conversation with
Caoilinn Hughes,
author of
(On Sale: July 10, 2018)
Q.  You’ve said that Gael’s character has been with you for a long time, but that you had to hone your skills before writing this novel, to truly do her justice. What is it about Gael that stayed with you? How did you come to write this story, now?
A.  Orchid & the Wasp went into submission a few weeks before Hilary Clinton lost the white female vote. She won a meagre 54% of overall female vote: a whole percentage point less than her male Democratic predecessor. Those least likely to vote for her were white, heterosexual, married women. I started writing this book in 2013, so I couldn’t have predicted how grossly prescient this character would be. How intelligence and capability get a woman nowhere, if she isn’t soft around the edges and vulnerable. Among many things, I wanted to explore aspects of macho culture: Gael has some traits that could be seen as macho—she’s gregarious, confident, unapologetic, ambitious, experiences success as an aphrodisiac, she’s resilient, willful and demanding. She has no trauma to explain or excuse her temperament. Even Clinton had a painful private ordeal bared publically; and yet, 54%. I wanted to resist using trauma as a legitimizing factor. I couldn’t find the books that followed a female character living and thinking and acting; in which the whole thrust of the narrative came not from that woman’s relationships, but from her ideology, interests and career. Even Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is propelled by Becky’s pursuit of good marriages, albeit upon non-traditional grounds. A scattering of novels is appearing now (Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elif Bautman’s The Idiot, some of Nell Zink, Zadie Smith and Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonists), but the acted-upon/apathetic versus acting is still bafflingly under-explored. We need a greater variety of female protagonists for a historical moment in which white women are grappling with misogyny, and the larger culture is struggling to accept women as actors. And unlikeable, Machiavellian ones? Perish the thought.
Q. What inspired the title of your novel, Orchid & the Wasp?
A.  In their philosophical writings, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari write about the relationship between a wasp and a rare type of orchid that resembles a wasp and lures the wasp to carry out its pollination. What this became in my predacious mind (veering far from Deleuze & Guattari's conceptions) was a shorthand for describing an exploitative societal phenomenon, and I borrowed that analogy for my novel’s title. Besides mimicking its physiology, the flower emits mock female wasp pheromones. When a wasp tries to mate with it, pollen latches to his head. The wasp eventually gives up, aware of his new burden but unable to shake it off. Soon he’s lured by another orchid, and so becomes the pollen-bearer. It’s one of the few examples in nature of a non-symbiotic system. The wasp gains nothing. One of the questions whirring through the novel is: is it really exploitation if the loser isn’t aware of his loss? This question is asked on multiple levels: personal, familial, national and societal. Gael is the orchid in this dynamic; a person (from a downwardly-mobile broken home) who perceives individualism to be superseding mutualism; who believes meritocracy to be a fallacy, and who goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her (to her eye) exploitable loved ones.
Q.  Orchid & the Wasp is picaresque in structure, each chapter showing one day in Gael’s life over a decade. How did you come to this structure?
A.  We often describe the events and circumstances of our lives and cultures as if they’re progressive, logical, as if causality is controllable by will rather than by a coven of megalomaniac loophole-dwelling billionaires and the cold chance factors of time and place! Narrativization can never be truthful and its consolations are often dangerous. But I didn’t want to write a meandering modernist novel that bends its form backwards to render unmediated lived-experience—Gael would have neither patience nor finesse for that—so I decided to just live with her in a selection of days from her life. To begin with, these days are distanced by a few years, then they progressively cluster—usually with several months in between. In the book’s countless settings, barely any place is revisited. So not only is there a temporal movement, there is a continual physical one (even people’s houses keep changing … downsizing). I knew this unconventional structure would present a challenge for the reader, as they wouldn’t be able to predict where the novel was going. They would sense thematic fibres binding the structure—and there’s the fact that the character has family members she cares about, and there’s a love interest in the book—but fundamentally the form comes from Gael’s long drawn-out argument with the world, and—as Yeats would have it—with herself.
Q.  There’s a rich engagement with art and music in the book. Gael’s mother is an accomplished conductor, and you write beautifully of the relationship between conductor, orchestra and score, audience and performance. Later, Gael makes her way into the art world. How did you approach writing about music and visual art?
A.  Music can envelop a person—a passer-by—without any action or interest or desire on the part of the hearer; even against his will! Music can govern an atmosphere in milliseconds, where so many words are required to do the same. Until I began researching for this novel, I’d thought that if could pick another career, I’d be a composer. (Not that I have any talent for music whatsoever! Though I have been known to air-bow in the second violin sections of bad orchestras!) But I discovered that—especially if you’re writing orchestral works—it’s a grimly exclusory, non-meritocratic, shifty and tough profession. Still, when Gael tries to get her mother’s scores performed after Sive is forced out of her conducting position, her chances as composer surely beat conducting: In 2014, the website Bachtrack reported that only five of the world’s top 150 conductors were women. 3%. In spite of the statistics, researching the music in this book was sheer joy. I spent weeks on YouTube, trying to understand what symphonies Sive would have programmed in the past, and what she’d be programming in the moment we see her conduct through. I didn’t want the selection to be an intellectual exercise, as it wouldn’t have been for her.
On the fine art side, I graduated high school at sixteen and was a little too young for university, so I went to art school, where I was the least talented person by such a huge measure that the tutors told me there were other uses for a pencil and pad! But having proximity to visual artists then allowed me some understanding of that mode of expression. For this book, I enquired at various galleries in Chelsea about exhibiting material! I probed to find out where work is typically sourced, about the general code of conduct and belief system of that world. And it is not what it says on the Campbell’s tin.
Q.  You’ve said that the novel challenges the notion of a meritocratic system. How have current events, or your own thought development, influenced that theme in the book?
A.  Susan Sontag said that rules of taste enforce structures of power. She could equally have said that structures of power enforce rules of taste. For 2018, I think the latter version is more exonerating! Perhaps we’re living through the start of a low-magnitude seism in power structures, but it’s still true that success is often a foregone conclusion, even in the art world, which is insinuated by politics, sexism, nepotism and self-perpetuating privilege. It’s absurd that the American dream is still tendered to the patrons and populace for hope and solace, but it is. Gael is interested in this, though her grasp of it is cynical, and fairly straightforward. Mine is murkier. (I still wanted the book to be pulled from the slush pile of my dream agent! Artists are romantics, and hypocrites!)
There’s a huge gap between political rhetoric and reality, the world over. But the rhetoric has really penetrated the national psyche in America: that hard work will be met with due reward. That is one hacked reward system. Gael knows that Ireland and England have both been following the American corporatist model, so perhaps one reason she goes there is to see how it extrapolates. This is the way she treats everything: by fast-forwarding, by modelling and speculating, trying to protect who she needs to, trying to build a fall-out shelter for the mind, if not the heart.   
Q.  You had a previous career working at Google, and you’re also an award-winning poet. How did your other forms of work influence the novel?
A.  Whenever I teach, and undergrads ask me about MFAs (I don’t have one), I advise them to come back to it as a mature student. Writers will be writers in the end. It can be damaging to produce books and be peer-reviewed too early. It can form bad habits and it can close off so much life, as you try to get by and accumulate bylines. Knowing other modes of living expands your vocabulary (‘googler’, ‘googley’, etc.). My years in business helped me to conceive of Gael and her father. I probably couldn’t have written either convincingly without that time. That I was writing poems during those years helped sustain my cognitive dissonance.

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