Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 320 pages; 2006.
Louise Dean’s This Human Season is set in Belfast in 1979, at the height of The Troubles. Republican prisoners being held in The Maze are mid-way through their “dirty protest” in which they spread their excrement on the walls and refuse to wear clothes. Public support for their demand to be treated as political prisoners, rather than criminals, is building on the outside. Talk of hunger strikes isn’t that far away.
Dean gives voice to both sides of the political divide by splitting her rather ambitious second novel into two narratives told in alternate chapters. The first revolves around Kathleen Moran, a Catholic mother of four, whose eldest son, 19-year-old Sean, is locked up in Long Kesh, while the second, has John Dunn, a former British soldier of 22 years standing, now working inside the prison as a guard.
This even-handed approach serves to highlight the human tragedies at the heart of this brutal and bloody conflict. Kathleen, struggling to come to terms with Sean’s imprisonment, is at her wit’s end trying to keep her husband sober and her younger son out of trouble with the law. As she helps neighbours and friends pick up the fragments of their shattered lives, who will be there to pick up hers?
Meanwhile, John, struggling to put his military past behind him, finds that the high wages he earns as a prison officer come at a price, including the fact that wearing the uniform marks him out as a potential terrorist target. As he withdraws further and further into himself, his relationship with long-term girlfriend Angie is tested to the limit.
Despite the unrelenting bleakness of the character’s personal predicaments, Dean offers up much dark-edged humour to lighten the load. Her descriptions, her dialogue are pitch-perfect. The scenes in the prison are particularly good (particularly the banter between guards) and feel so authentic you can practically smell the stench of urine and excrement rising off the page. I especially liked this passage, in which John, working the night shift, patrols the prison:
After he closed the second grille once more, the voices started pitter-patter here and there, now in English, now in Irish. There was something ghostly about it; it was like listening to the voices of men who’d died together, trapped in the hull of a boat or in a building on fire, hundreds of years ago. He couldn’t hear what was being said, just heard the shimmering sibilance of their voices. Even though he was warmly dressed, it was too cold to nod off. It was no wonder they talked into the night, the low voice next door comforting like a coal fire.
Dean is also very good at encapsulating the senselessness of the conflict. Here’s how John describes his love of Northern Ireland to an Englishman who asks him about it:
It is a different country, that’s the first thing you have to get straight. To be honest with you, I’ve got a lot of time for the Catholics. The decent ones. Not the IRA. Although you see their discipline when you work in the prison. Anyway, I like it here, I like that it’s a hard place. England’s not for me, it’s all white bread and keeping the lawn trimmed. I like the people here, for the most part. Some of them are bastards — but you get that everywhere.
Girlfriend Angie is not quite as tolerant:
There’s a lot of fear amongst the Loyalist people that the Catholics will overrun the place. They have six or seven kids, whereas we have the one or two. They don’t want to be British but they’re not above taking the welfare. They’re good at giving to their own, I’ll grant them that, better than we are, everyone round here is for himself. But we don’t want to live their way, and why should we? People don’t want nuns and priests running their lives, teaching their children. Just because a person wants a united Ireland doesn’t make him more Irish than me. You see the difference is we’re happy with our lot. We’ve got our own ways here in Ulster. What we have here, and it’s not very much, we’ve worked for, so we have. Why should we give it away? Let them go down south if that’s what they’re after.
What I admire most about this book is Dean’s clear-eyed ability to reveal the human angle of The Troubles rather than concentrate on the politics of the situation. She never glorifies the violence or takes sides. Perhaps her own background — she is English, middle-class and lives in France — has helped her look at events with an outsider’s cool objectivity.
It makes for a hugely absorbing and intelligent read, one that lingers in the mind and forces you to think about all sides of the debate. It’s dark, disturbing and absolutely heart-breaking in places. Admittedly, I found it a bit of a slow burner but eventually the atmosphere of this book enveloped me to the point that I thought about it whenever I put it down and couldn’t wait to pick it back up again.
Louise Dean’s first novel, Becoming Strangers, won the Betty Task Prize in 2004 and was longlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year. This Human Season, while critically acclaimed, doesn’t seem to have garnered any awards, which is a shame, because this is a truly brilliant novel, intelligently told and one that shows a very human side to a war that raged for 30 years.