Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 240 pages; 2017.
Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade was longlisted for the 2017 Desmond Elliot Prize, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa First Novel Award and named as one of the Irish Times’ books of the year. It’s an unconventional story about forbidden love set in Dublin.
Working class life
Sonny is a 16-year-old schoolboy from a working class family. He nicks bikes, lacks self-esteem and his only friend is a girl, whom he sometimes dreams about kissing. He has a part-time job at the local butchers, where it’s expected he’ll become an apprentice when he leaves school.
But Sonny dreams of bigger things and wants to escape not only his family — four nameless older brothers, a nagging mother and a bullying father — but perhaps Ireland itself.
His world is opened up when he helps his father build a garden fence for a well-to-do English woman who lives on Montpelier Parade (hence the novel’s title). Her name is Vera. She’s beautiful, sophisticated and loves to read, but she’s also deeply troubled, and it’s only when Sonny rescues her after a failed suicide attempt that an unlikely friendship blossoms between them.
Melancholia and isolation
The deeply melancholic mood and feel of this novel is one that gets under the skin. The time period isn’t specified, but I suspect it’s the 1970s or 80s.
It’s written entirely in the second person, a “trick” that is very difficult to pull off without making the story too distant, but in Geary’s hands it works perfectly by highlighting Sonny’s sense of isolation. He is also excellent at conveying domestic settings and the eyes of a teenage boy being opened up to a new way of embracing the world.
As an example, here’s how he describes Sonny’s discovery of books and reading by borrowing tomes from Vera’s house without her knowledge:
You had never had a book before, and this one was a good one, you were sure of that, with its thumb-worn pages and old amber smell. The writer’s name in bold red print, T. S. Eliot, and the simple word Poems across the top. On the cover, cutting through the word, was a perfect circle, a dark stain.
You saw her then, Vera, at home one night on that blue couch, a blanket over her knees, maybe a fire burning in the grate. She looped a strand of hair behind her ear and reached across and set a half-finished glass of red wine onto the book she had fully emptied. It left a mark.
You sat at the kitchen table and boldly put the book out in front of you. Your mother was making the dinner, the news on the radio. The boys were in the next room, the television too. […]
“What’s that?” she says.
“It’s a book.”
“I can see it’s a book, what book is it?”
“Poems,” you say.
“Poems?” She forced air through her pursed lips, making a kind of pap sound.
Sonny’s new-found romance with literature is mirrored by his fondness for Vera, which develops into a sexual relationship that is both tender and troubling. While Geary refrains from offering any moral judgement, there is forever the hint that Sonny has got out of his depth but lacks the maturity to realise.
When I reached the end of this perfectly paced narrative, which works its gentle, poetic way towards a heart-breaking climax, I felt wrung out and devastated. Montpelier Parade is not only an unforgettable love story, it’s an exquisitely written novel about love, loss, sexual awakening and hope for a brighter future.