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My Coney Island Baby by Billy O'Callaghan review: a coy tale of a 25-year-long affair

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The Wonder Wheel ride at the Coney Island Boardwalk, New York
The Wonder Wheel ride at the Coney Island Boardwalk, New York Credit: Getty

My Coney Island Baby, a second novel by the accomplished short-story writer Billy O'Callaghan, offers an amicable and committed picture of heartbreak. Both married to other people, his protagonists, Caitlin and Michael, have been meeting each other, once a month, for the past 25 years.

O'Callaghan's story begins at the start of one of these trysts. Michael's wife has been diagnosed with cancer. Caitlin's husband is about to accept a job that will mean leaving New York. "Nothing lasts forever," O'Callaghan writes, and this day, this meeting, is a turning point.

The narrative skilfully zooms in and out, circulating from their Coney Island hotel room to the lives they have left behind. We travel, mentally, in space and time to learn about the loss of Michael's father in rural Ireland, and of the development of Caitlin's writing career, before returning to reflect on a hotel room mattress, or the texture of instant hotel room coffee – "its dregs which catch as grit" in a character's mouth.

The novel itself is less gritty. O'Callaghan writes tenderly of the impression of time on his protagonists, his prose, as they undress, working like a graceful slo-mo. To Michael's eyes, in the moment, she could still pass for 25 again, young, pretty, still slim as gathered sticks, the woman of his dreams, for better or worse, smiling but with the sadness that never quite departs her and which will always turn him 10 kinds of soft.

Caitlin "softens reality", we learn, and there are moments when O'Callaghan risks the same. Some touches – such as the electric kettle tray that looks like "a modernist commentary on the instant and the artificial" seem overplayed. Others, such as the "rose-coloured underwear" that Caitlin "owns and sports exclusively for Michael", feel that bit too coy. The grimy details of this long-drawn-out affair – how the pair kept meeting without ever being spotted, how they managed the cost of the hotels, chosen methods of contraception – feel lost somewhere, left down a crack in the narrative sofa.

Behind it is a kind of absence, a sense of loss that stretches back some 25 years, to the death of Michael's infant son. Here the idea of childlessness is deliberately, and productively, unsettling, in a novel that tests the way we form our lives, pushing against the almost fetishised form of the family unit as a certain good. In this deliberately uncertain work, nothing feels quite anchored or finished – and it's that stylish resistance to resolution, in the end, that impresses most.

My Coney Island Baby is published by Vintage at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the online Telegraph Bookshop

Sophie Ratcliffe's The Lost Properties of Love is published by William Collins