In Louise Nealon's debut novel, "Snowflake," we are introduced to the world of life on a small Irish dairy farm by Debbie White, our 18-year-old narrator, who milks cows each day and prepares to enter university. While this may sound sweet and wholesome, what lies beneath the surface is anything but.

Nealon's gradual exposition of Debbie's chaotic home situation and her own deep feelings of unworthiness create in "Snowflake" a vivid tale of courage and discovery, of engaging with a world that contains so many interpersonal traps, so many sources of shame, guilt, and self-deception.

In this novel about transition, Debbie has a pair of would-be mentors, both damaged themselves. Her mother (Mam) is an unpublished writer, who is sleepy, mysterious, generally checked out. Once a promiscuous teenager in a small town, Mam now drinks and records her dreams. The stories she tells her intelligent, often troubled daughter speak of the attractions of the dreamworld. Mam's reading of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," for instance, centers on Alice's worry: "I wonder if I've been changed in the night? … But if I'm not the same, the next question is: 'Who in the world am I?' "

Though Mam would like to guide her daughter into adulthood, she herself needs constant care, and Debbie lives in terror that she shares her mother's mad mind.

If Mam is a soporific shaman in Debbie's life, her Uncle Billy, who runs the farm, is her number one cheerleader, pushing her to work toward college, chasing away predatory men, scanning constellations with her from the roof of his caravan. Yet while Billy envisions a great future for his niece, he is filled with guilt, and, like almost all of the novel's cast of characters, he is an alcoholic. Debbie, too, tells us, that "drinking is like taking a holiday from my head." In her community alcohol is "the one thing that everyone loved"; the only unforgivable sin is going into rehab.

Small wonder, then, that on her daily commutes to Trinity College, Debbie feels herself the least comfortable person in Dublin, in her words, "a gobshite from the back-arse of nowhere" and a "snowflake" who cries easily. She makes a friend of sorts in Xanthe, a privileged but depressive city mouse who is intrigued by Debbie's lifestyle and amazed at her ignorance of urban customs.

Such plot as there is comes to us via conversations. The jokey give-and-take of the craic — and there is plenty of it — lightens the book's serious subject matter. At a funeral halfway through the novel, a drunken priest is about to deliver the eulogy. Debbie narrates: "A confused silence descends on the crowd as though we can't decide if we are still afraid of the devil or just blessed with a polite, Irish tolerance for people talking shite."

Nealon keeps us laughing to soften the rawness. And as all is filtered through Debbie's sharp consciousness, we come to appreciate the protagonist's fierce curiosity about how to guide oneself to live in the world.

Tom Zelman is emeritus professor at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.


By: Louise Nealon.

Publisher: Harper, 336 pages, $26.99.