The Alternatives by Caoilinn Hughes

Caoilinn Hughes’ new novel explores the bonds of sisterhood and the ways those bonds can be tested. Read on…

The novel follows four Irish sisters, all in their thirties, who reunite when one of the sisters—an earth scientist—suddenly disappears from her work and home, sending one final note asking her family not to pursue her. The sisters had been living distanced lives, in separate countries, and we meet them first individually. I wanted to show women attempting to do meaningful work, expressing themselves through their professions, and contending with some of the systemic challenges of our times. Olwen, the geologist, is witnessing Deep Time collapsing (where processes that should be playing out over millennia are playing out over decades), not to mention a frightened cohort of students. The political scientist is working in the context of a weakening democracy; the philosopher, commercialization of the academy; the chef, a volatile food system and the hot-blooded context of food nationalism. They’re each attempting to forge new paths, and defending paths that are rapidly being closed off. I’m interested in how we individually and collectively think about the future (without ignoring the facts of history), our responsibilities towards the young and unborn generations, and about the limits and possibilities of adaptation. I loved the idea that a novel about women at work could also be a novel about family and sisterhood—because family doesn’t only exist in a domestic realm.

I was aiming to set the novel as close as possible to when it would be published. In writing about now, I had to anticipate what the coming years would be like, while trying to understand and capture the present. And this process reflected what the novel is about: the attempt to lurch forward in the story—to adapt—as the rug is pulled from beneath our feet. 

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