20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘The Good Son’ by Paul McVeigh

Fiction – Kindle edition; Salt Publishing; 256 pages; 2015.

Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son is a coming-of-age story set in the Catholic working-class and Irish Republican district of Ardoyne, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during The Troubles.

It is narrated by a schoolboy, Mickey Donnelly, who’s a smart kid with big dreams — when he grows up he wants to move to America.

I can’t wait to get to America. I’m going to work in a diner. I’ve got dreams.

But life is tough for Mickey, the apple of his mother’s eye, because his one shot at going to St Malachy’s, the local grammar school, has just been blown: his father has spent the required funds on alcohol and gambling.

Summer holiday

The book follows nine weeks in Mickey’s life during the long school summer holidays in which he dreads having to go to St Gabriel’s, where’s his older brother Paddy is in the sixth form and where all the boys are horrible and there will be no dancing or singing or acting lessons.

Caught between childhood and puberty, Mickey longs for his voice to drop so he can be regarded as a man rather than being labelled “gay” and “weird” by other children, including Paddy. It doesn’t help his reputation that he mainly hangs out with his little sister, Wee Maggie, whom he dotes on, and her friends instead of other boys (with the exception of Fartin’ Martin, a boy from school) and speaks in a “posh” way, using good manners which mark him out as different to other boys his age.

During his holidays he mainly plays with his pet dog Killer, lusts after his neighbour Martine, who encourages him to teach her to “lumber” (slang for sex) and has occasional run-ins with local bad girl Briege, whose father is in prison — rumour has it, he stole some sausages for the IRA.

Mother love

Mickey runs a lot of errands for his mother, whom he loves dearly. She becomes increasingly dependent on him to be her “good son” when Mickey’s dad leaves, taking the TV with him, but this proves a challenge when his freedom is constantly curtailed.

I have very clear instructions. Don’t go to the top of the street cuz there’s always riots. Don’t go to the bottom of the street cuz there’s No Man’s Land and there’s always riots. Don’t go near the Bray or the Bone hills cuz that leads to Proddy Oldpark where they throw stones across the road from their side. Don’t go into the aul houses cuz a wee boy fell through the stairs in one and broke his two legs. I think his neck too. Ma could be exaggerating. Oh, and don’t go onto the Eggy field cuz there’s glue-sniffers. Ma should have just tied me to the gate or locked me in a cupboard.

On one occasion, when he ventures to a part of town he is forbidden to visit, he gets caught up in a bomb explosion that kills his dog and injures his own head, though not seriously. He hides this fact from his mother, worried that he will get in trouble, and does not tell her that he saw Paddy, who may or may not be involved with the IRA, at the scene.

It’s this kind of careful balancing between comedy and melodrama that gives The Good Son its emotional power. It’s the kind of book in which the reader laughs out loud on one page, then turns over to be confronted by the stark reality of what it is like to be a child in a war zone.

I check there’s no Prods or gangs about in Alliance Avenue and cross to the corrugated iron barricades. There’s a tiny little door to the Prods. You’re not allowed to use it. You’d be murdered. They’ve started callin’ them peace lines which really makes me laugh cuz actually this is where people come to kill each other.

As the story inches towards the end of the school holidays, the drama slowly builds as Mickey’s family get caught up in events that put them at risk, forcing the “good son” to do something bad to protect them all. It’s a deftly told tale, compelling and charming in equal measure, but also alarming and heart-rending too.

The Good Son won the Polari First Book Prize in 2016.

Cathy, who blogs at 746 books, liked this novel a lot too.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Shadows on our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston: another coming-of-age story set during The Troubles. It follows a Derry schoolboy, surrounded by violence and danger, who develops a platonic relationship with a female teacher and then discovers his world opening up…

This is my 12th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it on 30 August 2017, I think because I had seen a good review of it on Savidge Reads, back in the day when Simon blogged.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Granta, Katherine Faw Morris, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Young God’ by Katherine Faw Morris

Young-god

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 208 pages; 2015.

Some books leave a strange but memorable aftertaste on your reading palette, and Katherine Faw Morris’s debut novel, Young God, certainly does that. This may be a thin volume, but it brims with menace and sparkles with shameless in-your-face shocks, which arrive one after the other. It’s a story that gets under the skin and leaves an indelible mark. And they’re the kinds of stories I like best.

Life on the margins

The story goes something like this… When her mother dies, Nikki, a sassy, street-smart 13-year-old, moves in with her father to avoid social security putting her in care. Her father, Coy Hawkins, lives in a trailer in the woods with his 15-year-old girlfriend, Angel, whom he pimps out.

Coy was once the biggest coke dealer in the county, but he now seems to use drugs rather than sell them, a fact that shocks Nikki when she presents him with a bag of 500 “Roxies” — the opiate Roxicodone — which she stole from her mother’s boyfriend, Wesley.

She expected him to sell them first. Call somebody. However that works. Nikki didn’t snort any. Angel’s nodding on the couch. Coy Hawkins is slumped in a reclining chair. Nikki stands at its foot, completely alert.

Somewhere along the line Nikki understands that if she’s to avoid being pimped out, she must make a living elsewhere, and so she turns to the local drug trade, where she begins selling “black tar” heroin for one dollar a milligram. It is, needless to say, a rather sordid and dangerous business, but Nikki seems unaware of the consequences.

Living in this messy world, where life is cheap and teenage girls are merely sexual objects for older men to play with,  Nikki holds her own, but it’s not a life that offers any kind of hope or fulfilment.

By turns shocking and stomach-churning, Young God lifts the lid on an impoverished underclass living on the margins of society. It’s a dark, brutal, cut-throat existence, no place for anyone let alone an uneducated 13-year-old girl, who’s just lost her mother. But Nikki is not the kind of character that invokes pity: she’s headstrong, determined, full of life and willing to rush headlong into new experiences.

Short, sharp, snappy prose

I read this book, mostly with my heart in my mouth, wondering what wretched, violent thing was going to happen next. It’s a gritty story full of sleaze and sex, where characters perform base acts to numb the pain of existence. On every page there’s something to shock or to stun the reader, but it doesn’t feel manipulative or gratuitous — everything is there to inform the story, to lend it an air of authenticity, to show you how cheap life is for those who live their lives like this. It makes for a deeply unsettling reading experience.

The prose style — short, sharp, snappy — mirrors the starkness of the subject matter, but reads like the rawest of poetry.  This is also reinforced by the creative use of white space in which a single sentence or a short paragraph occasionally stands alone on a whole page:

Young-god-text-excerpt

When I came to the end of this novel, which I read in one frenzied sitting unable to tear my eyes from the disturbing story unfolding before me, I felt wrung out. Young God is a thrilling, eye-opening read, and not one that is easy to forget…

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes’ by Per Petterson

Ashes-in-my-mouth

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 128 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes, first published in 1987, was Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s first book, yet it was only translated in 2013. Like many other successful authors who write in languages that are not English, his books have been translated out of order. This means that for fans like me — I’ve reviewed most of his work here — we have to read things out of chronological order. Not that it really matters: reading a Per Petterson novel is always a treat, regardless of when it was published, and this one is no exception.

The book, which is beautifully presented with French flaps and high-quality paper, comes in a small format paperback measuring 11.9cm x 16.6cm, making it perfect to fit in a handbag or, in my case, a bike bag. I toted it around with me for about a week and read a chapter each morning as I ate my  breakfast having cycled 6.5 miles into work. It was the perfect way to start to the day.

Introducing Arvid Jansen

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes tells the story of Arvid, a character who features strongly in Petterson’s later novels, In the Wake (first published in 2000 and translated into English in 2007) and I Curse the River of Time (first published in 2008 but translated into English in 2010) and is said to be loosely based on Petterson himself.

In this debut novel, Arvid is a six-year-old boy living on the outskirts of Oslo in the 1960s. His world revolves largely around his working class parents — his Danish mother, who is a cleaner, and his father, a factory worker — his older sister Gry and his paternal uncle Rolf, who is a socialist.

Structured around 10 self-contained chapters, it reads a bit like a short story collection, but the unifying thread is Arvid’s unique take on the world coupled with his inability to comprehend the adult situations around him. His childhood naivety is utterly endearing, but there are also moments when you realise his honesty may work against him.

For example, in the opening chapter A Man Without Shoes, Arvid’s father loses his job as foreman in a shoe factory. He goes to Denmark to work in an office but returns six months later because he wasn’t “much of a paper pusher”. His brother Rolf gets him a job in a brush factory making toothbrushes, which he accepts begrudgingly, but even young Arvid knows there is no future in this line of work:

Shoes, on the other hand, there was a lot to say about them. Gym shoes, smart shoes, ladies’ shoes, children’s shoes, ski boots, riding boots. Dad talked a lot about shoes, and he knew what he was talking about. But now it was over. Now you couldn’t even say the word ‘sole’ aloud. If you did Dad would lose his temper.
‘In this house we wear shoes, we don’t talk about them, is that clear!’ he said, and then there was silence, although Arvid could easily see that his mother was annoyed by all the detours they had to take.

Later, his father throws out all the shoe samples and rolls of leather he had been given in his previous job in order to clear space in the cellar. He needs the space to store the toothbrush samples, which he now brings home from work.

‘That’s it, Arvid,’ Dad said with an ugly laugh and his face looked just like a rock. ‘Now I’m a man without shoes!’
‘I know,’ Arvid said. ‘Now you’re a man with toothbrushes!’
And even though he was only one metre fifteen tall and pretty slight, his voice was so heavy with scorn that at first his dad stared at him and then went into the kitchen, and he slammed the door after him.

Poignant snapshots of childhood

There are many scenes like this throughout the book in which Arvid says what everyone is thinking. This brings a rare poignancy to the tale, especially when you begin to “read between the lines” and come to understand that Arvid’s father is a difficult, slightly bitter character — he seems to have a fraught relationship with most adults in his life, including his wife, but especially with his brother, with whom he fights, sometimes physically — and even young Arvid, who adores him, is often afraid of him. Whether this explains Arvid’s bedwetting or his nightmares isn’t clear.

As the quotes above should show, it’s written in simple, unadorned prose, and yet the narrative brims with nostalgia and tenderness, and a painful kind of honesty shines through. It shows the world through a six-year-old’s eyes so evocatively and eloquently, it’s hard not to be “wowed” by Petterson’s skill as an author. Although the narrative is disjointed — it reads like a snapshot of Arvid’s childhood at various points in time rather than as one seamless flow working towards a climax — it’s a rather delightful, bittersweet read.

I really enjoyed Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes if only to appreciate the book that brought Petterson to Norway’s attention all those years ago.

Alejandro Zambra, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Chile, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘Ways of Going Home’ by Alejandro Zambra

Ways of Going Home

Fiction- paperback; Granta; 139 pages; 2013. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

Alejandro Zambra has been described as the most important Chilean author since Roberto Bolaño. He was named on the Bogotá39 list (39 of the most promising Latin American writers under the age of 39) in 2007 and selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists in 2010.

I read his second novella, The Private Life of Trees, in 2011 and was intrigued enough to want to read his latest, Ways of Going Home, which won the 2013 English PEN Award for outstanding writing in translation.

But reviewing this short work of fiction is not a straightforward task. There’s an ephemeral quality to it, like waking from a pleasant dream knowing you will never be able to recapture the feeling of it. It’s difficult to try to figure out the shape of the narrative, but it’s written in such eloquent, stripped-back prose, the story slips down as easy as hot chocolate — though the themes are far from sweet.

Set in the author’s native Chile, it uses the devices of metafiction to explore memory, love, truth, deception, guilt, family life and political responsibility. It particularly focuses on the generation born after Pinochet came to power in 1973 and how, in young adulthood, they have had to come to terms with uncomfortable truths: that their parents were either victims or accomplices in the murderous dictatorship that lasted for 17 years.

Freedom under a dictatorship

The book opens with an unnamed nine-year-old boy, living in suburban Santiago in 1985, musing on the fact his parents haven’t always known best. Indeed, this turns out to be a metaphor for the entire book:

Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought that they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t. “You went a different way,” my mother said later, angry, her eyes still swollen. You were the ones that went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.

We get a feel for the suspicious nature of life during the dictatorship when the boy’s parents refuse to have anything to do with their neighbour Raúl — a single man who lives alone — for fear he comes from a different political class. The boy cannot escape this sense that the man is dangerous, for he is enlisted by Raúl’s 12-year-old niece, Claudia, to spy on him — “to keep an eye on his activities and make notes about anything that seemed suspicious”.

But despite the political troubles, life for the boy, his parents and their friends is relatively contented and free.

We lived under a dictatorship; people talked about crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home. Weren’t the streets of Maipú dangerous then? At night they were, and during the day as well, but the adults played, arrogantly or innocently — or with a mixture of arrogance and innocence  — at ignoring the danger. They played at thinking that discontent was a thing of the poor and power the domain of the rich, and in those streets no one was poor or rich, at least not yet.

It’s not until the book switches tack in the second part that we can begin to understand the “disease” of the middle classes who preferred to keep their heads down rather than confront the wrongs (mainly unexplained “disappearances”) happening around them. Zambra does this by turning the narrative on its head: he makes the unhappy protagonist in the second part the writer of the novel begun in the first part. Through this we learn that he has suspicions that his own father sympathised with the Pinochet regime, all the while claiming he was apolitical.

While he continues working on his novel about an unnamed boy and his childhood friend Claudia, the protagonist tries to patch up the relationship with his estranged wife, Eme. Their vexed lives strangely mirror events that later appear in his novel when the “boy”, now in his 30s, starts a sexual relationship with Claudia. It blurs the lines between writer, narrator and character, so that the reader begins to question what is real and what is not.

If you haven’t guessed already, this is not a straightforward easy-to-follow narrative. But Ways of Going Home is one of those clever books that shines a light on the gaps between fiction and reality. By setting it in the context of Chile’s troubled past, it also explores the thin line between complicity and innocence. The way in which it weaves the personal with the political makes it a complex but sophisticated read. Even if you know nothing about Chilean history, it will make you think about childhood, the different ways we “go home”, understanding your parents’ decisions and beliefs, and the importance of finding your own truth to live by.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Setting

‘You’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

You

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island Books; 157 pages; 2010.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir‘s debut novel, You, is a lovely, heartfelt and completely engrossing story about a 10-year-old Irish girl grappling with issues out of her control: the loss of her best friend Gwen, who moves to Wales; the impending birth of a new half-sibling to her father’s second wife; and a new man in her mother’s life.

A Dublin childhood

You is set in Dublin in the 1980s and revolves around the unnamed girl, who is largely responsible for her two siblings — her younger brother Liam, and “the baby”, who is her half-brother — because her mother is partial to a drink. A couple of neighbours also help out.

Every so often the girl and Liam go to stay with their dad, who lives on the other side of town. He has remarried and there’s another baby on the way.  Eventually, they stay with him on an extended basis when their mother goes to hospital for “a little rest” but all the time the girl longs to return home, to her damp, crumbling house by the river Liffey, because she’s convinced that her step-mother has it in for her.

Indeed, the girl is never quite sure where her loyalties lie — she loves her mother but hates her new boyfriend; and she loves her father but doesn’t like his new wife. The one constant in her life, however, is  her best friend Gwen, who causes another spoke to fall off the wheel, as it were, when she announces that she’s moving across the Irish Sea to live in Wales. It’s almost too much for the girl to bear…

A funny, feisty narrator

You is told in the present tense and in the second person from the viewpoint of the girl, who is feisty and funny and opinionated and cheeky — and fiercely independent.

I’m not normally a fan of second-person narrators, but it’s testament to Ní Chonchúir’s skills as a writer that the story clips along at a steady pace and never feels laboured. You get pulled into the story because of the girl’s voice and get to experience everything she experiences, which makes her tale feel more immediate and real. Here’s an example:

Sometimes you wish that your ma was dead and that you, Liam and the baby lived in an orphanage. The people in the orphanage would feel really sorry for you and they would sing songs to you and let you sit on their lap. They’d bring you on picnics in meadows and they’d have a big basket, a checkered blanket and a flask and stuff. Then one day a rich couple would come and adopt the three of you and you would all live happily ever after in a big old house with ponies to ride on. The adoption ma would be movie-style pretty and the adoption da would be tall and handsome and he’d wear a suit and tie. Your da never wears a suit because he’s an electrician and he wears jeans or cords and jumpers. You like to think about all that sometimes, but the good feeling of it doesn’t last because the guilt starts creeping up your body and into your mind. It’s not right to wish that people are dead, especially not a close relative, even if they are narky all the time and make your life a living hell. Your ma has her good points; she just doesn’t like to show them very often.

I often laughed out loud at some of the girl’s observations and at other times I wanted to cry. Much of what she thinks and feels provides great insight, not only into her own small world, which is fragmenting at the seams, but at the ways in which her mother is struggling to cope with single parenthood, depression and the fact her ex-husband has moved on and she has not. For that reason, this is a very warm and human book.

Admittedly, I wondered where the narrative was going to take me, but then something quite dramatic and shocking happens mid-way through and suddenly what had been an eloquent character study is transformed into a brilliant family drama tinged by tragedy and heartbreak.

You might be a short and simple story, but it’s evocative — of time, of place, of childhood — and incredibly poignant. I loved every word.