‘Are you going into town today?’ she says, which annoys me because it’s something she says all the time, having forgotten she said it before, and I say, ‘Jesus, Mum, not this again,’ and she says, ‘What again?’ and I say, ‘Town is shut down,’ and while she can see I am upset and wants not to upset me like this, she is also wounded by my tone, and I am ashamed then and can only look at my plate, and I decide not to bring up what I intended to bring up, about the past, and about my need for her to apologise for it.
Gavin is spending the quarantine in a small flat in south Dublin with his eighty-year-old mother, whose mind is slowly slipping away. He has lived most of his adult life abroad and has returned home to care for her and to write a novel. But he finds that all he can write about is her.
Moving through a sequence of remembered rooms — the ‘cells’ — Gavin unspools an intimate story of his upbringing and early adulthood: feeling out of place in the insular suburb in which he grew up, the homophobic bullying he suffered at school, his brother’s mental illness and drug addiction, his father’s sudden death, his own devastating diagnosis, his struggles and triumphs as a writer, and above all, always, his relationship with his mother. Her brightness shines a light over his childhood, but her betrayal of his teenage self leads to years of resentment and disconnection. Now, he must find a way to reconcile with her, before it is too late.
Written with unusual frankness and urgency, Cells is at once an uncovering of filial love and its limits, and a coming to terms with separation and loss.
‘A brave, raw, visceral memoir told with such acuity, insight, and compassion, I could barely put it down. Gavin McCrea’s unflinching mapping of his family’s struggles, his own journey towards individuation and self-realisation, as well as his deep, conflicted love for his mother, is beautifully rendered, painful, and real. A stunning, memorable read.’
Lisa Harding, author of Bright Burning Things
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‘This is a book that brims with stored-up pain — and with a very particular kind of courage. For all its dark and sometimes brutal honesty, what the reader is going to remember here is the way that McCrea’s prose fights on through his hurt to bring home pages that seem lit from within by love and beauty. A memoir that is as rewarding as it is undoubtedly challenging.’
Neil Bartlett, author of Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall and Address Book
‘Cells is a compulsive tidal force of a book: detailed, vulnerable, and brave, it pulled me in swiftly and held me to the very end.’
Seán Hewitt, author of All Down Darkness Wide
‘Reading Cells, I was struck by McCrea’s generosity in interrogating personal histories as they relate to wider familial and social systems. Contemplating devotion and loss with revolutionary sensitivity, what results is a stunning work of emotion-mapping. Cells is a dazzling exploration of nuance; pondering the formative threads that piece together the self, sewing a new lineage of interconnectedness towards acceptance.’
Peter Scalpello, author of Limbic
‘A life recollected in vivid scenes, Cells is both brutal and tender in its depiction of the relationships that shape a self. Leading the reader through moments of darkness and of luminosity alike, this is a work of intellect and eloquence, but also a work of great heart. I was deeply moved as I read, and so grateful that this book found its way to me.’
Doireann Ní Ghríofa, author of A Ghost in the Throat
Using the fine brushstrokes of his relationship with his mother, Gavin McCrea creates a remarkable self-portrait which becomes, then, a portrait of our times. This memoir will comfortably sit alongside other great Irish memoirs of recent decades, not least the work of Nuala O'Faolain, Hugo Hamilton, and John McGahern. This is a brave book, beautifully written, fearless, vulnerable, self-aware, honest, and not without moments of intimate levity. McCrea is prepared to express his rage at how the world has unfurled around him, but he does so with delicacy and love and a daring sense of invention.
Colum McCann, author of Apeirogon
‘An unflinching memoir about interiority, in multiple senses of the word, and the ways in which shame and trauma inflect the spaces of our material lives. Gavin McCrea’s writing is attentive and deeply intelligent; it teems with the life of its subject, refrains from glumness or easy answers, and all with an elegance that makes Cells a captivating read.’
Jack Parlett, author of Fire Island
Praise for The Sisters Mao:
‘McCrea’s portrait of Jiang Qing is a masterpiece of characterisation: at once monstrous and pitiable. The Sisters Mao is dazzlingly clever and original.’
Antonia Senior, The Times
Praise for The Sisters Mao:
‘The Sisters Mao is a spectacular novel, utterly enthralling and insightful; every voice is penetrating, dazzling. In spite of the setting, it is full of relevance for these times; it manages to be both historically authentic and thrillingly contemporary. Gavin is a writer of extraordinary talent, and I cannot think of a kind of reader who I would not recommend this novel to.’
Sara Baume, author of Spill Simmer Falter Wither
Praise for The Sisters Mao:
‘McCrea has conducted exceptionally deep research to conjure up nuanced, authentic portrayals of the worlds of the book — but the text carries his knowledge lightly, supporting rather than dominating the story. The Sisters Mao is the best sort of historical fiction; one that illuminates the contemporary moment with great insight. Profoundly brilliant, it will no doubt be a huge contender on the literary awards circuit, but also one that is pushed feverishly from reader to reader with excitement.’
Helen Cullen, The Irish Times
Praise for Mrs Engels:
‘[Gavin McCrea] deserves praise for his command of voice in Mrs Engels… This is the best kind of historical fiction — oozing period detail, set in a milieu populated by famous figures and events about which much is known, but seen through the eyes of a central character who, due to her illiteracy, left no ready access to her experience in the form of letters or diary entries: a rich and accomplished first novel.’
Lucy Scholes, The Independent