Review: Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan



Deirdre Sullivan

Little Island, 2016

YA – Contemporary

Needlework has been deservedly praised by Louise O’Neill as ‘an experience you’ll never forget’ and by Sarah Crossan as ‘a powerful novel that deserves to be read.’ It tells the story of seventeen year old Ces who is dealing with the aftermath of terrible abuse and trying overcome her past.

While Needlework deals with painful subjects, it is beautifully written and Sullivan’s style allows the reader enter into Ces’ mind. Her voice is very distinctive, and the writing is so lyrical that it is almost like poetry. The narration can be quite rambling as it follows Ces’ thoughts. Myths and fairytales are woven into the story, showing how important stories and words are to her. The novel is interspersed with asides about the process and history of tattooing, showing the pivotal role body art plays in Ces’ life as she seeks to create beauty from pain and make beautiful scars, scars of her own choosing. She wants to regain control over her body both through tattooing (‘When I get a tattoo it will be something private and meaningful. I would like my life to have privacy and meaning’) and through her relationship with Tom (‘I’m using him while also being used’). Ces is an incredibly strong character, she is haunted by her experiences but is trying to find a way to overcome them, while also caring for her mother who has shut down completely. The descriptions of Ces’ tattoo designs are vivid and macabre. This was my favourite:

A diagram of the human heart […] one of crystal glass. All whites and blues. If it beats too hard, this heart will shatter is what the legend underneath it says.

Needlework is an angry book, as Ces deals with her past, trying to be seen as a survivor rather than a victim (‘No-one likes a victim. Everyone feels sorry for her though’). She rails against the idea that she must always be defined by her past. Sullivan conveys Ces’ self-loathing powerfully, through the ways her appearance reminds her of her father and through her self harm and other destructive coping mechanisms.

 It is also a feminist book as Ces thinks about how unfair our society’s treatment of women is. When Tom says she has a ‘big mouth’ she thinks:

A mouth can be a trap, that much is true. A woman’s mouth especially […] People need mouths. For eating and for talking. Things that women are ashamed to do, too little or too much.

She muses on women and sexuality, body image and emotion (‘We’re full of feelings, women. We boil over’). For me, the most powerful part of the book was the chapter entitled ‘Something That You’ll Probably Regret’. It was difficult to read, and Sullivan doesn’t hold back here, giving us an insight into the horror Ces has endured and continues to struggle with. While the book is certainly not an easy read, there is a sense of hope at the end. Ces is strong and resilient, and while the ending is open there is a sense of optimism (‘The memory of pain. And just a scar’).

The cover, designed by Steve McCarthy, is very striking and captures the pain explored by Sullivan in the book. Needlework is a powerful and a painful read, it gets under your skin and it will stay with you. The voice is distinctive and memorable, the subject matter handled with delicacy and sensitivity.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Dee Needlework

Deirdre Sullivan at the launch of Needlework.


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