Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 391 pages; 2003.
When I recently asked Irish writer Joseph O’Connor to take part in my Triple Choice Tuesday series, I was delighted when he named Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home as a book deserving of a wider audience.
I had only just finished reading the book myself and was still letting it “settle”. I couldn’t quite work out if I loved or loathed it. There was something about it that had disturbed me and it was only when Joseph said it had “blown the doors off” typical Irish literature that the penny dropped. The Journey Home not only captures the unofficial goings on in Irish society, it is also set in unfamiliar territory — the suburbs rather than the city or the countryside — and this is what had felt strange to me.
Having thought about it a lot since, I’ve decided that The Journey Home, which was first published in 1990, is a brave and beautiful book. It’s also a challenging read, because not only is the subject matter confronting, the structure of the novel doesn’t follow a traditional format.
There are three narrative threads, which are interleaved throughout the course of some 390 pages, and these jump backwards and forwards in time.
The first thread is told in the first person by Francis Hanrahan (known as “Hano”), a shy teenager who hasn’t quite figured out his place in life. Life in the Dublin suburbs is harsh. There are few jobs. And those that do have them, including Hano’s dad, are downtrodden and miserable, mainly because they’re working for the ruthless and corrupt Pascal Plunkett.
Hano’s spirits are lifted when he gets a menial office job and befriends Shay, who at 21 seems like a man of the world to Hano. He is experienced and fun but slightly dangerous too. Their friendship is the core of the novel. It is touching at times and alarming at others. And its strength is tested in all kinds of ways.
The second thread is told in the third person and recounts Hano’s life on the run following an unspecified, but obviously serious, event. He is accompanied by Katie, a 16-year-old drug addict, and together the pair of them criss-cross the country over the course of four days and nights, hiding from the police who are close on their tail. We are given few clues as to what made Hano and Katie into fugitives, but we do know that Katie loved Shay and that Shay is now dead.
The third and final thread is much briefer and often told in snippets and occasionally in verse (it may be helpful to know that Bolger is also a respected poet). These are told from Shay’s perspective after his death and are addressed to Katie.
I will admit that I initially struggled with the novel, because the three narrative threads are a bit confusing. But once I got a handle on them the story flowed easily, although, as ever, when presented with different narrators and storylines, it means you might favour one over the other. And for me, it was Hano’s engaging tale, told in the first person, that I preferred. I was less sure about the narrative of Shay’s ghost because I found it often got in the way of the rest of the story.
But I liked the contrast between the different storylines and the way in which they built up to a magnificent crescendo as they collided, in an unpredictable fashion, right near the end of the book.
I also liked the recurring notion of home, which runs like a river throughout this novel. Bolger’s characters are constantly in search of it, or running towards it, or fleeing it. Indeed, much of the story is about Hano coming to terms with leaving his parents and setting out on his own.
Home, like an old ocean liner, broke loose from its moorings and sailed in my mind across the hacked-down garden, further and further through the streets with my parents revolving in their armchairs. I could see it in my mind retreating into the distance and I stood to wave unsteadily after it, grinning as I took each euphoric step down after Shay towards the takeaway drink hustled in the bar below and the adventures of crossing the city through the reeling night-time streets.
And while the overall story is dark and incredibly shocking in places (there’s a rape scene, for instance, which caught me completely off guard), the characterisation is terrific: happy-go-lucky Shay, who sells his soul; self-conscious Hano, who is forced to grow up quickly; mysterious Katie, who is far too young to be out and about on her own; and the two Plunkett brothers, the seedy property developer Pascal and the corrupt politician Patrick, who have an entire town under their collective, immoral and cruel thumb.
The Journey Home is a novel that rings with truth. It’s a bleak look at suburban life at a particular point in time, but it’s also filled with corruption, desire, rage — and a tiny bit of hope.