Author, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘Hidden Symptoms’ by Deirdre Madden


Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 144 pages; 2014.

In recent years, Deirdre Madden has become one of my favourite writers. She has 10 novels to her name, but I’ve only reviewed three of them — One by One in the Darkness (published in 1996), Molly Fox’s Birthday (2008) and Time Present and Time Past (2013) — which means I have many years of reading pleasure ahead of me if I space them out accordingly.

Her debut novel, Hidden Symptoms,  first published in 1986, is a densely constructed story about a trio of characters living in Belfast during The Troubles.

It revolves around university student Theresa, a devout Catholic, whose faith is tested by the murder of her twin brother, whose badly mutilated body was found dumped on a patch of waste ground near the city centre several years earlier, the result of sectarian violence.

Love and violence

But the story is just as much about the faith — and the trust — placed in friendships, for Theresa spends most of her time with Robert, a writer and frustrated intellectual, who aspires to better things and despises his sister’s sheltered suburban life, and Robert’s girlfriend, Kathy, a fellow student, who discovers that the father she thought had died when she was a baby is actually living in London with his new young family.

The background to these family dramas — “people marrying, mating and mixing genes” —  is Belfast in the 1980s, a time of great conflict between paramilitary forces, British state security forces and political activists. Yet despite the violence, Theresa views it as “normal” because, as she explains early on in the novel, “she had watched it [Belfast] sink since her childhood from ‘normality’ to its present state”.

What she cannot come to terms with, however, is knowing that someone in the city killed her brother purely because of his religion (he was not known to be a member of any paramilitary organisation). She is plagued by pain, distress and paranoia:

… she arrived too early for an arranged meeting with Kathy in a city-centre pub. She bought a drink and while she waited she looked around at the other customers, the majority of whom were men, until slowly the thought of the man who had killed her brother crept back into her mind. Those men who were laughing in the corner; that man with reddish hair and big, rough hands who was drinking alone; even the white-coated barman, cutting wedges of lemon for gin-and-tonics: any one of them might have done it. She gazed at each of them in turn and thought in cold fright: “Is he the one? Did he do it? Is he the man who murdered Francis?”

The political and religious divide

Admittedly, Theresa is not a terribly likeable person — she’s (understandably) bitter and angry, and all her conversations tend towards the argumentative, particularly where politics is concerned. Her relationship with Robert, initiated in a cafe when she roundly criticises and condemns a piece about Irish literature that he wrote in a magazine, is fraught from the outset but it soon descends into irreconcilable differences because their views on politics and religion are so polarised.

And yet despite her fierce talk and hard-held opinions, there’s a fragility about Theresa that is hard to ignore. Her grief, at times, is palpable, and it is to Madden’s credit that it never descends into maudlin self-pity or sentimentality.

Hidden Symptoms is a short novel — indeed, it was originally published in Faber’s First Fictions anthology where it was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1987 — but it’s so tightly written it would take an age to unpick all the issues and themes it contains. As a dark exploration of bereavement, faith, love, loyalty and violence, you would be hard pressed to find a book more powerful — or intelligent.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Casey, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘A State of Mind’ by Kevin Casey


Fiction – Kindle edition; Lilliput Press; 296 pages; 2011.

Lilliput Press, which is based in Dublin, is increasingly becoming my Irish publisher of choice. I’ve only read a handful of their books but I am yet to find a dud one. Kevin Casey’s State of Mind, first published in 2009, is no exception.

Set in rural Ireland

The story is set in Co. Wicklow in the 1970s and is loosely based on British author Frederick Forsyth’s experiences as a tax exile living in Ireland. Apparently Mr Forsyth upped sticks and moved back to the UK in 1980, because of kidnap fears.

In A State of Mind, the Forsyth character is played by Bill Cromer, a wealthy, best-selling author from England, who moves to Wicklow to take advantage of Ireland’s then tax-free concessions for those working in the creative industries. He brings his much younger German girlfriend, Ingrid, with him.

The story is not so much about Bill and Ingrid but about their neighbour, John Hughes, a former newspaper reporter, who turned his back on journalism to write novels — several of which were hugely successful and enabled him to buy a nice five-bedroom, two-bathroom house in the Wicklow countryside.

A serious case of writer’s block

But now John, who is the first person narrator of the story, is suffering a severe case of writer’s block. His wife Laura, who is an English-born radiographer, and his teenage daughter Rachael, don’t seem to mind that he now lives a life of “rural leisure and private desperation”.

It is the arrival of Bill and Ingrid into their rather sheltered community that unwittingly provides John with new material. The book opens with these fateful first lines: “This is an attempt to record the events of last summer. I want to understand what happened.”

Without giving away crucial plot spoilers, John begins an affair with Ingrid that has serious repercussions. As he jumps in and out of bed with her — taking advantage of his wife’s long commute to Dublin, his daughter’s absence at boarding school and Cromer’s trips back to the UK — there is more going on than meets the eye. Yes, he’s gathering material for his new book and finding out some painful truths about himself and his marriage, but he is also getting mired in something more dangerous: the local republicans have already marked Cromer as a target for blackmail and possible kidnap.

An understated, sexy thriller

A State of Mind is one of those rare books that defies classification, because it’s part sexy romance, part political thriller. It’s told in a very gentle, understated way, almost to the point of being flat, yet there’s something about the prose style — and the narrator’s limpid voice — that weaves a certain kind of spell. I found myself completely caught up in the story, wanting to know what was going to happen next. Was John going to get caught by his wife? Were the IRA going to bump him off as a case of mistaken identity? Would Ingrid call it quits?

There’s a lovely 1970s feel to the story too — it’s all cosy dinner parties, gin and tonics, and endless telephone calls on the landline — and setting it in Wicklow, among a small enclave of foreign writers, makes it even more intriguing. Lunch time visits to the pub will never be the same again!

Kevin Casey was once the Abbey Theatre’s youngest playwright. His novels include The Sinner’s Bell (1968), A Sense of Survival (1974) and Dreams of Revenge (1977). A State of Mind is his first book in more than 20 years.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, David Park, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘The Truth Commissioner’ by David Park


Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 372 pages; 2009.

All good things come to those that wait, which is a fairly apt description for how I felt as I read David Park’s The Truth Commissioner. I considered abandoning the book several times, before everything began to kick into gear somewhere around page 242. That’s a lot of pages to wade through, and a lot of information to hold in your head, before things begin to make sense. It’s worth the effort though.

The story revolves around a Truth and Reconciliation Commission designed to heal the scars of Northern Ireland’s past by finding out what happened to citizens who disappeared during the Troubles. It hones in on one particular case in which a 14-year-old boy, Connor Walshe, disappeared, believed killed by the IRA on the basis that he was a “tout”.

The Commission is headed up by Harry Stanfield, a human rights lawyer, especially appointed by the British Prime Minister as the Truth Commissioner because “he has no personal or political baggage to be packed on either side”. But Stanfield, who spent the first 12 years of his life in Belfast, feels no affinity for the place and thinks the process of the Commission is a bit like “an old manged, flea-infested dog returning to inspect its own sick”.

Later we are introduced to three other characters: Francis Gilroy, a former political prisoner who is the newly appointed Minister with responsibility for Children and Culture; James Fenton, a retired RUC detective who now spends his time climbing mountains and helping a Romanian orphanage; and Danny, a young man living in Florida who’s looking forward to the birth of his first child with his Latino girlfriend, Ramona.

The current lives of these four men are explored in rather sizable “pen portraits”, which read almost as if they are standalone stories. This is an interesting approach to take, because it gives the reader a real sense of these people as human beings, rather than as the stereotypical characters one might expect from a book that is about the Troubles (for instance, the Brit, the cop, the IRA leader and the young terrorist). But it also makes for a slightly frustrating read, because you have no knowledge of how these characters are connected, nor how they fit into the nugget of the story, until some 150 pages from the end.

The novel doesn’t hit its stride until the four divergent storylines merge into one. But once the pace picks up it becomes almost thriller-like as you wait for the “truth” to come out: what did happen to Connor and who is to blame?

This is not a book for impatient readers, but it is a rewarding one. Given it’s set in Belfast and explores the notion of relatives reclaiming their dead in a war that raged for 30 years, I had expected the book to focus on politics and religion. But these are mentioned in mere passing, and often with the sense that it was all rather pointless, as these observations by Stanfield attest:

He looks at the faces of those standing outside the drawing office. The wind has whipped their cheeks so that they look as if they bear thin tribal incisions cut in their flesh. And after all, what was it really, except some rather pathetic and primitive tribal war where only the replacement of traditional weapons by Semtex and the rest succeeded in bringing it to temporary attention on a bigger stage?

The Truth Commissioner is essentially a book about people, with foibles and troubled histories, who are trying to find their way in unfamiliar, peaceful terrain. You get the sense that none of the four main characters are bad people, but that they got caught up in events that were “normal” at the time but now, through the lense of peace, look barbaric and wrong. Each of them, grappling with secrets of their own — whether it be Stanfield’s penchant for sleeping with prostitutes or Gilroy’s belief that he’s not cultured enough to be the minister for culture — are plagued by guilt, fear of retribution and denial. Each of them wants a way out. The “truth” isn’t always the answer…

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Louise Dean, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Scribner, Setting

‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean


Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 320 pages; 2006.

Louise Dean’s This Human Season is set in Belfast in 1979, at the height of The Troubles. Republican prisoners being held in The Maze are mid-way through their “dirty protest” in which they spread their excrement on the walls and refuse to wear clothes. Public support for their demand to be treated as political prisoners, rather than criminals, is building on the outside. Talk of hunger strikes isn’t that far away.

Dean gives voice to both sides of the political divide by splitting her rather ambitious second novel into two narratives told in alternate chapters. The first revolves around Kathleen Moran, a Catholic mother of four, whose eldest son, 19-year-old Sean, is locked up in Long Kesh, while the second, has John Dunn, a former British soldier of 22 years standing, now working inside the prison as a guard.

This even-handed approach serves to highlight the human tragedies at the heart of this brutal and bloody conflict. Kathleen, struggling to come to terms with Sean’s imprisonment, is at her wit’s end trying to keep her husband sober and her younger son out of trouble with the law. As she helps neighbours and friends pick up the fragments of their shattered lives, who will be there to pick up hers?

Meanwhile, John, struggling to put his military past behind him, finds that the high wages he earns as a prison officer come at a price, including the fact that wearing the uniform marks him out as a potential terrorist target. As he withdraws further and further into himself, his relationship with long-term girlfriend Angie is tested to the limit.

Despite the unrelenting bleakness of the character’s personal predicaments, Dean offers up much dark-edged humour to lighten the load. Her descriptions, her dialogue are pitch-perfect. The scenes in the prison are particularly good (particularly the banter between guards) and feel so authentic you can practically smell the stench of urine and excrement rising off the page. I especially liked this passage, in which John, working the night shift, patrols the prison:

After he closed the second grille once more, the voices started pitter-patter here and there, now in English, now in Irish. There was something ghostly about it; it was like listening to the voices of men who’d died together, trapped in the hull of a boat or in a building on fire, hundreds of years ago. He couldn’t hear what was being said, just heard the shimmering sibilance of their voices. Even though he was warmly dressed, it was too cold to nod off. It was no wonder they talked into the night, the low voice next door comforting like a coal fire.

Dean is also very good at encapsulating the senselessness of the conflict. Here’s how John describes his love of Northern Ireland to an Englishman who asks him about it:

It is a different country, that’s the first thing you have to get straight. To be honest with you, I’ve got a lot of time for the Catholics. The decent ones. Not the IRA. Although you see their discipline when you work in the prison. Anyway, I like it here, I like that it’s a hard place. England’s not for me, it’s all white bread and keeping the lawn trimmed. I like the people here, for the most part. Some of them are bastards — but you get that everywhere.

Girlfriend Angie is not quite as tolerant:

There’s a lot of fear amongst the Loyalist people that the Catholics will overrun the place. They have six or seven kids, whereas we have the one or two. They don’t want to be British but they’re not above taking the welfare. They’re good at giving to their own, I’ll grant them that, better than we are, everyone round here is for himself. But we don’t want to live their way, and why should we? People don’t want nuns and priests running their lives, teaching their children. Just because a person wants a united Ireland doesn’t make him more Irish than me. You see the difference is we’re happy with our lot. We’ve got our own ways here in Ulster. What we have here, and it’s not very much, we’ve worked for, so we have. Why should we give it away? Let them go down south if that’s what they’re after.

What I admire most about this book is Dean’s clear-eyed ability to reveal the human angle of The Troubles rather than concentrate on the politics of the situation. She never glorifies the violence or takes sides. Perhaps her own background — she is English, middle-class and lives in France — has helped her look at events with an outsider’s cool objectivity.

It makes for a hugely absorbing and intelligent read, one that lingers in the mind and forces you to think about all sides of the debate. It’s dark, disturbing and absolutely heart-breaking in places. Admittedly, I found it a bit of a slow burner but eventually the atmosphere of this book enveloped me to the point that I thought about it whenever I put it down and couldn’t wait to pick it back up again.

Louise Dean’s first novel, Becoming Strangers, won the Betty Task Prize in 2004 and was longlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year. This Human Season, while critically acclaimed, doesn’t seem to have garnered any awards, which is a shame, because this is a truly brilliant novel, intelligently told and one that shows a very human side to a war that raged for 30 years.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Headline Review, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘Shadows on our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston


Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 224 pages; 2004.

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer. While I’m familiar with most of her hugely extensive back catalogue, I haven’t really touched her earlier work. I was eager to read Shadows on our Skin, first published in 1977, to see how it compared to her later novels. Not surprisingly, it’s excellent, but it’s not what I would describe as “typical” Johnston fare.

First, it’s set in Northern Ireland — Derry, to be precise (where, I believe, Johnston herself now resides) — unlike much of her later work which is Dublin or London-based. And second, the protagonist is male — a schoolboy of an unspecified age — whereas everything else I have read by her has been told from a female perspective.

But the trademarks are still present: sparse, yet lyrical, prose; characters who are lonely or damaged; themes of loss and tragedy. It’s an effortless read, despite some rather weighty subject matter: the difficulty of growing up while the Troubles rage around you.

It’s a claustrophobic world that Johnston spins here. Joe Langan, a schoolboy with dreamy tendencies (he secretly writes poetry in his maths class), is under strict instruction to come straight home from school every night. There is to be no playing in the street, no hanging out with friends, because his mother fears he will be shot, whether accidentally or on purpose, by the British soldiers that patrol the area.

Joe’s world is reduced to domestic routine — ensuring the anthracite-fired stove is burning, making the tea, helping his aged and alcoholic father get out of bed — before his mother, the main breadwinner of the family, comes home from work. When Joe meets a young local schoolteacher, the lonely Kathleen Doherty, a platonic friendship blossoms between them, and Joe’s world is suddenly opened up…

It’s a fairly low-key story, and not much seems to happen plot wise, but there is something about Shadows on our Skin which is strangely compelling and incredibly moving. There’s an aching quality to the story, the type of pain which feels like a knot in the throat which cannot be swallowed away.

I think it is largely to do with the characterisation, which is superb, and the ways in which Johnston pits various family figures against one another, so that you can feel the tension seething off the page. The embittered relationship between Joe’s parents not only shows how two people can fall out of love with one another, it also shows how they couldn’t live apart either.

Similarly, the not-quite-trusting relationship Joe has with his older brother, the mysterious Brendan, who returns from England after several years away, depicts the rivalries and divided loyalties of siblings living under the one roof.

And the father, a former war hero who tells tales about his past exploits, is also a wonderful example of patriarchal dominance, a figure who continually torments his wife and children, unable to accept how his life has turned out.

But there’s a bigger picture at work here, which is the political and religious war being waged on the streets of Derry. It’s not the focus of the book, but its presence is felt on almost every page, whether it be reports of bombs going off, soldiers raiding Catholic homes in search of IRA weapons or boys having their sports bags searched en-route to school.

Shadows on our Skin, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977, is an enlightening read and one that cements Jennifer Johnston in my affections even more firmly than before.