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).