Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury Circus; 320 pages; 2022.
Winner of the An Post Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year 2022 and shortlisted for a slew of other awards, Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses is the tale of a doomed love affair set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.
Every second person in the world seems to have read it — and loved it. But as much as I enjoyed it on a superficial level, I found the storyline predictable and cliched.
At one point, Cushla Lavery, the main character, tells her lover: “This is going to end badly, isn’t it?” And I wondered why it had taken her so long to figure it out because when a young woman falls for an older married man it never really ends well.
Throw in the complexities of their religious divide — she’s Catholic, he’s Protestant — class differences and a bloody and violent sectarian war playing out around them, then the chance of a happy-ever-after seems particularly far-fetched. But maybe I’m being harsh — or too cynical.
A secret affair
The main story is about Cushla’s clandestine relationship with Michael Agnew, an older married man she meets in the “garrison town” pub owned by her family. She’s from working-class Catholic stock and teaches at the local primary school. He’s an Ulster protestant and works as a criminal barrister in Belfast.
But there are subsidiary storylines that showcase other aspects of Cushla’s life and go some way to explain why she’s embarked on a forbidden relationship.
These include looking after her widowed mother, Gina, who is an alcoholic and sometimes can’t even get out of bed she’s so drunk or hungover; working evenings in the pub run by her brother Eamonn and having to serve the clientele, some of which are British soldiers; and taking an outside interest in the care of one of her young students, seven-year-old Davy McGeown, whose father is the victim of a particularly vicious attack by paramilitaries. This all place demands on her time and her inner resources, so that there is little left for her; she’s too busy mothering everyone else.
Did Cushla fancy Michael because he was the only man she knew who didn’t talk incessantly about his mummy?
A friendship with a male teacher, Gerry Devlin, who many think is her boyfriend, acts as a convenient cover. But many of her rendezvous with Michael happen out in the open when he draws her into his sophisticated circle of friends by inviting her along to teach them the Irish language.
But right from the start the relationship is one-sided and we know next to nothing about Michael, except that he has had many affairs and he’s the one that calls the shots:
He would never give her more than this. For her there would just be liaisons arranged an hour or two in advance, couplings in lay-bys, evenings at his friends’ house under unconvincing pretexts. When her thoughts flitted – briefly – to his wife, the guilt at what she was doing to her did not take.
What makes their relationship seem even more reckless is the frisson of danger that infects the whole city in an “unspeakable war”. The threat of death, from bombs and guns, is on every page. Some chapters open with a series of news headlines — about deadly explosions and arrests and caches of weapons being found — to hammer home the point that this affair is happening in a war zone.
This death and violence are so normalised that the pair never discuss how Michael’s job paints him as a terrorist target…
As a story of a woman navigating multiple battlefields, Trespasses is an entertaining read.
It’s largely told as a series of vignettes, with the affair underpinning the narrative. But because I knew exactly where that narrative was headed, some of the vignettes felt like filler. That said, the denouement is suitably powerful and shocking and leaves a lasting impression.
I liked the book, I just didn’t love it.
If you liked this, you might also like:
‘Shadows on Our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston: through the eyes of a young Derry schoolboy, this gently nuanced novel shows what it is like to grow up while The Troubles rage around you.
‘Lies of Silence’ by Brian Moore: A heart-hammering tale set during The Troubles in which the IRA orders a hotel manager to park a car in the hotel’s car park. If he refuses, his wife, who has been taken captive, will be murdered.
I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23, which runs throughout March. I’m a little behind so that’s why this review is more than a week late. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.
Update 1 May 2023: This book has been shortlisted for the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. I am attempting to read all the books on the shortlist before the winner is announced at the end of May. This qualifies as the first book read (out of a total of five).
21 thoughts on “‘Trespasses’ by Louise Kennedy”
I was considering reading ‘Trespasses’ , but how many novels have I already read about a romance during The Troubles in Ireland?
For those who have never read about The Troubles, I imagine this one is pretty compelling. But if you’re familiar with this era and setting it’s been done better in other novels. I still reckon Louise Dean’s This Human Season is the best book about the Troubles because it presents both sides of the story in an even handed properly researched manner.
‘The Old Romantic’ by Louise Dean is also a treasure.
Yes. I liked that one too.
This Human Season (which I read on your recommendation) is excellent.
Probably the best fictional depiction of the Troubles ever written, I reckon.
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I was in the ‘loved it’ group of readers and didn’t mind that I knew exactly what was going to happen from the beginning.
Interesting point about Cushla taking a while to realise the relationship was doomed – my sense is that she did know that from the moment they met but was caught in the catch-up period where every part of her being searched for evidence that suggested a different (happier) outcome. For me, that was the really engaging part of the story – we’ve all been there at some stage (infatuated with someone unsuitable!).
I think Cushla was just desperate for some love and attention because goodness knows she didn’t get it anywhere else, so yes, I understand why she embarked on the relationship. I still think Michael is a complete shit though 🤪
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I’ve been thinking of getting this on audible but maybe I won’t now that I’ve read your review. I’m in the middle of “Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe which is giving a detailed description of the Troubles during the late 1960s/early 1970s. Have you read that?
Please don’t let me put you off. It’s a solid three-star read. And I’m also an outlier cos everyone I know who has read it LOVES it.
I haven’t read the Keefe but have it on my Kindle after I heard him speak about the book, I think at the Melbourne Writers Festival or one of those festivals you could zoom in on during covid. I must bump it up the queue.
Ok, maybe I will try it on audio. I’d be interested to hear what you think of the Keefe. I’m reading it because I don’t know much about the Troubles and I’m finding it quite informative and interesting. Would love to hear what a more informed person thinks
It is very highly regarded.
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I’m so with you on this one! Incredibly cliched and predictable. I do think Kennedy does an amazing job of evoking this particular place and time, but I felt so disconnected from everything about it.
Ah, I thought it was just me! Agree that the place and time are evocatively done, but if you strip that away the affair is bog standard predictable. Like you, I didn’t feel connected to the characters in any meaningful way… 🤷🏻♀️
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I really enjoyed “Shadows on our Skin” by Jennifer Johnston. My review: https://fictionophile.com/2014/10/05/shadows-on-our-skin-by-jennifer-johnston-book-review/
Thanks for pointing me to your review! Always great to see some Jennifer Johnston love in the blogosphere!
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Very much a novel I have been meaning to read, so it’s a shame to see you call it predictable and clichéd. I can sort of see why it might be though, given the storyline , I will probably still give it a go one of these days.
It’s a good read; I’m just cynical 🤨! Also: if you haven’t read anything set in this part of the world during The Troubles, you may appreciate the atmosphere / period evoked.
I haven’t read many books set in the Troubles, even less romances set in the Troubles (the YA series about Sadie & Kevin by Joan LIngard, being the one and only)! But your review has helped to temper my expectations that had become quite high after all the RAVE reviews.