Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 183 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Humorous, dysfunctional families don’t come much better than the one presented in first-time novelist Mark Macauley’s recently released The House of Slamming Doors.
The Montagues, an upper-class Anglo-Irish family, live in a grand manor house in County Kildare. The head of the family is Bobby, a Catholic born in Canada and educated in England, who has “a really weird accent” that he alters depending to whom he is speaking.
If he’s on the phone trying to be business-like or sucking his pipe thinking he’s wise, he’ll have a Canadian twang. If he’s trying to be funny and friendly with the locals he suddenly gets a terrible Irish accent, like he’s trying to be their best friend, saying stupid things like ‘bejesus’ or ‘begorragh’ or ‘fair play to ye’. If he’s in England he has an English accent just like ‘By the way, I went to Oxford, old chap.’
Mr Montague is married to Lady Helen, the daughter of an English earl, who loves French wine and “swanky Russian fags called Sobranie”, and has a rather distant, off-hand relationship with her three children: Emma, 17; Lucy, 15; and Justin, 13.
The story is told from Justin’s point of view in diary entries that begin with the arrival of JFK on Irish soil in June 1963 and finish with JFK’s assassination five months later in downtown Dallas. During this short period Justin — full name Justin Alexander Torquhil Edward Peregrine Montague “but my father calls me ‘you little bollocks”” — catalogues everything from the war waged between his fiery-tempered parents, to his growing attraction to the local farmhand’s daughter, the outspoken and beguiling Annie Cassidy.
Much of this is laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s an edge to it too, inviting comparisons to Molly Keane‘s novels. But like all dark comedy, the book works by deftly treading the line between tragedy and humour.
Macauley achieves this by ensuring that Justin’s observations lack crucial adult awareness — for instance, he seems oblivious to the fact that his mother is conducting an extra-marital affair — so that the reader genuinely feels for the protagonist’s situation because you know what’s coming even if he doesn’t. Indeed, I felt a moral sense of outrage, comparable to Justin’s, when his father forbids him from fraternising with Annie because he “will not have children of the staff in my house”.
The House of Slamming Doors is an effortless read, packed with funny incidents and peopled with deliciously eccentric characters (Donal Sheridan, the world’s slowest chauffeur, soon became my favourite). And while it’s essentially a coming of age story as Justin emerges from the shadow of his bullying father and learns to stand up for the things he believes in, it also has much to say about the class system and racism between the Irish and the English.