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

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park

Travelling in a strange land

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 176 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I was so gripped by David Park’s latest novel Travelling in a Strange Land that I read it in a day.

The book has a simple premise: a severe winter snowstorm a few days before Christmas has made all road journeys treacherous and flights have been grounded. Tom, who lives in Belfast, drives his car from Stranraer, on the west coast of Scotland, to Newcastle, on the east coast of England, to collect his university-aged son, Luke, who is ill and stranded in his student lodgings.

The narrative, written in eloquent, beautifully visual language, traces Tom’s physical journey. It details the ferry crossing, the monotonous drone of the satnav instructions (“Drive for six point four miles. […] At the next roundabout take the second exit“), the treacherous conditions on the roads, the constant phone calls back home to inform his wife and 10-year-old daughter of his progress, the additional phone calls to Luke to check his flu hasn’t worsened, the little stops and starts he makes on the road, and the people he meets along the way.

But that road journey is merely a metaphor for another journey Tom has recently had to make: that of a newly bereaved parent grappling with the death of his oldest son, Daniel, and the legacy of guilt and bewilderment and loss he now feels.

Deeply contemplative read

Travelling in a Strange Land — even the title is a metaphor for grief — is a deeply affecting read. It’s not sentimental in any way, shape or form. Instead it’s a wonderfully contemplative read, understated in its beauty, in its power to show the inner life of a man trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.

The narrative winds all over the place in tune with Tom’s thoughts. One minute we learn how he met and fell in love with his wife, who was engaged to another man at the time, during The Troubles; the next we are discovering how much he hates working as a wedding photographer because all today’s couples are shallow and obsessed with image over substance.

Music references are a constant refrain — “In the car I have the music I’ve chosen for the long hours ahead — Robert Wyatt, Van Morrison, REM, John Martyn, Nick Cave” — as are references to photography, including the types of pictures he wants to take of  “the moment that lies just below the surface of things, or a glimpse of the familiar from a different angle”.

And I have come to understand the truth of what Ansel Adams said: that you don’t make a photograph just with a camera but that you bring to the act all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard and the people you have loved.

The plot, which is paper-thin and barely there, is compensated by the exemplary characterisation — even those people who are “off-page” such as his wife, his daughter, and even Luke are brought to vividly to life by Tom’s memories of conversations, incidents and day-to-day interactions. His late son, Daniel, of whom we really know nothing about, flits in and out of the storyline, as enigmatic in death as he was in life.

But everything is held together in an expertly crafted portrait of a father’s grief and of a man realising that the picture we present to the world is never quite what it seems.

Things to click:

Listen to the Spotify playlist of all the music mentioned in the book.

Look at Sonya Whitefield’s photographs inspired by the book.

Read my review of David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam (2012)

Read my review of David Park’s The Truth Commissioner (2009)

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

‘Hidden Symptoms’ by Deirdre Madden

Hidden-symptoms

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, Kevin Smith, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Sandstone Press, satire, Setting

‘Jammy Dodger’ by Kevin Smith

Jammy-dodger

Fiction – Kindle edition; Sandstone Press; 320 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tomorrow, the shortlist for the 2013 Desmond Elliot Prize — an award for new writers — will be announced, so what better time to review Kevin Smith’s Jammy Dodger, which is on the longlist?

Black comedy

Set in 198os Belfast, this debut novel is a darkly comic tale about an audacious literary hoax that goes awry.

The narrator is bohemian slacker Artie Conville, who is joint-editor of a poetry magazine called Lyre — and subtitled “A Supplement for the Imagination” — which is funded by quarterly grants from the government aimed at “normalising life in the province”. Most of the money goes on booze and long lunches and it allows the pair to drift along without ever having to worry about the usual 9 to 5 regime of normal adult life.

But when the grant money looks like drying up, Artie and his co-editor Oliver Sweeney dream up a rather bold and cheeky way to keep the money coming in — they fill the magazine with poetry they have penned themselves but publish it under a pseudonym. This cunning plan looks to be a success until the powers that be want to meet this new exciting poet in person and have him go on a literary tour around Northern Ireland…

An Irish twist

If you think this sounds strangely like the Ern Malley affair, you’d be right. The book does pretty much mirror the events of a real life literary hoax in 1940s Australia.

But Jammy Dodger gives it an Irish twist and the way that Smith cleverly contrasts the beauty of poetry with the godawful violence of The Troubles — which are only ever mentioned in passing — shows a real flare for black comedy.

Sandwich boards on the pavement outside the newsagent’s proclaimed the day’s headlines: Six Soldiers Killed in Lisburn Bombing, (Long, long the
death …), Provos Claim Fun-Run Slaughter, (… Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace / And that high-builded cloud …), Ten Civilians Injured In No
Warning Blast, (… Moving at summer’s pace.)

Peopled with quirky characters who get dangerously embroiled in a series of strange events, Jammy Dodger is one of those books that is a joy to read.

It’s not just the one-liners, of which there are plenty — “‘How’s the wine? Is it amusing?’ he asked, slapping my shoulder. ‘Oh, it’s hilarious. Just don’t get any in your mouth’” — nor the succession of very funny set pieces throughout, but the way it sends up the art world and pokes fun at the whole pretentiousness of literary circles and egotistical writers, including the ways in which certain people are fawned over while talentless wannabes think they are god’s gift to literature.

That said, it also reveres and celebrates literature. It name-checks so many classic authors and poets, it’s enough to warm the very cockles of your heart. Indeed, if you love poetry and poets, then I doubt you’ll find a better novel that celebrates this particular art form. But for me (who doesn’t know very much about poetry) I loved the James Joyce references:

After lunch (beans on toast), I continued with Ulysses. God it was
intense! Hallucinatory almost. The detail. The energy. The flow. The
colours. Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets … Moist
pith of farls … the froggreen wormwood … mouths yellowed with the pus
of flan Breton … rolls gunpowder cigarettes through fingers smeared with
printer’s ink … sanguineflowered … Old hag with the yellow teeth …
Green eyes … the blue fuse burns deadly … orangeblossoms … breeches of
silk of whiterose ivory … a dryingline with two crucified shirts … Pure
poetry. Every page. Totally absorbed, I read until I realised the
afternoon had gone and then feeling thoroughly Bloomish strolled round
to Kavanagh’s for a pint and a plate of stew.

The book isn’t just a comedy, however. A gentle romance is interwoven into the narrative, which sounds soppy written down like this, but is actually quite touching, because it makes Artie feel like a proper flesh-and-blood character.

On the whole, Jammy Dodger is the kind of novel that might normally have slipped under the radar had it not been for its Desmond Elliot Prize nomination, of which it’s a very worthy contender. It’s a laugh-out-loud funny satire, sharp and witty one moment, tender and painfully honest the next, all delivered with a lightness of touch that marks Smith as a writer to watch.

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

‘The Truth Commissioner’ by David Park

TruthCommissioner

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, crime/thriller, Fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting, Stuart Neville, Vintage

‘The Twelve’ by Stuart Neville

TheTwelve

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 466 pages; 2010.

Stuart Neville’s debut crime novel is set in Belfast at a fragile time in the peace process. Gerry Fegan, a former IRA hitman who murdered 12 people during The Troubles, is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. These comprise five soldiers (three Brits and two from the Ulster Defence Regiment), a cop, two Loyalists from the Ulster Freedom Fighters, and four civilians “who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

Fegan is particularly haunted by the deaths of a young mother and her baby whom he “accidentally” killed when the bomb he planted in a butcher’s shop went off earlier than expected. He continues to hear the cries of the baby, which he tries to drown out by drinking himself into a stupor every night. The other ghosts follow him around and talk to him. Sometimes he talks back.

So far, so good. This looks like a book about remorse and guilt and atoning for your sins. But no. Neville takes it one step further and turns it into a form of vengeance, because the only way Fegan can come to term with his past deeds is not to accept personal responsibility for them, but to find the people he blames for making him carry out these horrendous acts. And then kill them. One by one.

His hitlist includes a past member of the IRA who has reinvented himself as a leading politician in Stormont; a former soldier of the Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment; a handful of Belfast street thugs; and a priest.

If The Twelve is to have any redeeming features it is that it quite clearly shows how murder and corruption is rife on both sides of the political and religious divide. Neville also exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of the peace process, which does not seem to be motivated by peace and goodwill, but by who can get the larger slice of the political and financial pie.

While Fegan is running around the streets trying to pick off the people he feels destroyed his life and, in turn, the lives of 12 others, he bemoans the fact that the younger generation are more concerned about having the right car and living in a nice house than anything that went on before. The Troubles, he realises, mean nothing to the young adults of today.

Everywhere is the feeling that times have changed. One of the politicians, McGinty, sums it up like this:

“This is a different world. The bombs won’t work any more. The dissidents put an end to that in Omagh. The people won’t tolerate violence like they used to. Then 9/11 came along. The Americans don’t look at armed struggle the same way. Used to be we could sell them the romance of it, call ourselves freedom fighters, and they loved it. The money just rolled in, all those Irish-Americans digging in their pocket for the old country. They don’t buy it any more. We’ve got peace now, whether we like it or not.”

But Campbell, a soldier who once patrolled the streets of Belfast and now resides in the Republic, thinks the changes are fairly superficial.

The city’s invisible borders remained the same as when Campbell first walked its streets holding a rifle eighteen years ago. The same lowlifes still fed off the misery they created, deepening the divisions wherever they could. The same hatreds still bubbled under the surface. But the city had grown fat, learning to mask its scars when necessary and show them when advantageous.

Despite these perceptive insights into life after The Troubles, I felt slightly ambivalent about this book. Once you strip the setting away, this is a fairly laborious read about an old hitman now conducting a new series of assassinations. The story is completely devoid of heroes, as well it might be, but for a thriller to work you clearly need to be cheering on the protagonist. I felt nothing but ambivalence towards Fegan.

I also struggled to get beyond the cliches: the woman who needs saving and the tough nut who begins to open up to her. I won’t mention the guns, the car chases, the beatings and the deserted rural properties where everything comes to a head!

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

‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean

HumanSeason

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

ShadowsOnOurSkin

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.

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

‘One by One in the Darkness’ by Deirdre Madden

OnebyOne

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 181 pages; 1997.

Many of you may be familiar with Deirdre Madden’s most recent novel, Molly Fox’s Birthday, which was shortlisted for last year’s Orange Prize. But that was not the first of Madden’s novels to be shortlisted: One by One in the Darkness, penned 13 years ago, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1997 (losing out to Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces).

If you can forgive the horrendous cover art of my edition (see above), this is a perfect introduction to both Madden’s work (it’s her fifth novel) and how the religious and political turmoil of Northern Ireland had long-lasting impacts on normal, hard-working rural families inadvertently caught up in the conflict.

The story is set in the space of one week some time in the early 1990s (the blurb suggests that it is before the start of the IRA ceasefire in 1994, but I could not find an actual date anywhere in the text). Cate Quinn, a journalist on a London-based fashion magazine, returns home to her family in County Derry to break some news she know will be upsetting to those she loves, in particular her widowed mother.

This narrative is undercut with the story of Cate’s staunchly Catholic upbringing in the 1960s and 1970s, on a farm near Slieve Gallion, with her older sister, Helen, and younger sister, Sally.

These flashbacks, told in alternate chapters, serve to demonstrate how their childhoods, which should have been happy and carefree, were tainted by the political violence and religious prejudices of the time. There’s a real sense of disbelief and confusion when, for instance, a civil rights march in Derry turns violent, and  “now all the talk at home was about civil rights, and how things would have to change”.

Equally, a trip to the Antrim coast, when they have to drive through Protestant enclaves bedecked with Union Jacks and red, white and blue bunting, puzzles them.

They thought the Orange arches which spanned the roads in the towns were ugly, and creepy, too, with their strange symbols: a ladder, a set square and compass, a five-pointed star. They knew that they weren’t supposed to be able to understand what these things meant; and they knew, too, without having to be told that the motto painted on the arches: ‘Welcome here, Brethren!’ didn’t include the Quinn family.

But this is early days, and later, when soldiers begin turning up on their doorstep, interrogating them and lifting their uncles who live on a neighbouring property, it’s clear that the world outside their “few fields and houses” has encroached on their day-to-day existence.

This novel is largely a study of relationships: there are family tensions at work on almost every page, and Madden expertly captures the unspoken anxieties between people without spelling everything out. Indeed, the circumstances revolving around the death of Cate’s father are never fully explained until the closing chapters of the book, and it is only when you realise what has happened, and how it has happened, that the tremendous force of Madden’s storytelling abilities come into play.

But One by One in the Darkness is also an astute look at the “idea of home” and how each character chooses to identify with Northern Ireland. Madden very cleverly uses the dual narrative to show how the sister’s current lives have been shaped by events of the past: Cate, has reinvented herself in London and changed the spelling of her name from Kate to Cate in order to sound “less Irish”; Helen, now a criminal lawyer based in Belfast, has rejected religion and is trying to atone for “past wrongs that could never be righted”; Sally, a teacher, has never left the local area, although she feels trapped and dreams of escape.

But there’s a dichotomy at work here, because while all three sisters are occasionally ashamed of their country, they are also fiercely loyal to it, as the following quotes from Sally demonstrate:

“If it wasn’t for Mammy, I’d leave tomorrow. I can’t stand being in Northern Ireland. All that guff about it being a great wee place, and the people being so friendly. I feel ashamed for having gone along with that; other people were being killed the way Daddy was, and I was one of the ones saying, ‘There’s more to Northern Ireland than shooting and bombing’.”

And then, almost in the same breath, she adds:

I remember being on holiday in Italy once, and loving it there until I saw this two-day-old English newspaper in a kiosk, with a report on the front page about a car bomb having exploded in Belfast. All at once, I wanted to be there. I felt guilty for not being at home, not that it would have made the slightest bit of difference. I mean, apart from the odd holiday I’ve been here right through the Troubles, and it hasn’t made a blind bit of difference to anything. There hasn’t been so much as a shot less fired because of me, but it would have made a difference if I hadn’t been here, it would have made a difference to me. I can’t explain it any better than that.

If there’s any fault to be had with this novel, it is that the writing sometimes feels forced and the dialogue unnatural. And Cate’s news, which is disguised as a terrible secret (but is easily guessed), is revealed too soon, halting the momentum of that particular narrative thread.

But on the whole this is a superb look at Northern Ireland’s troubled history from a female perspective.

Atlantic Books, Author, Bill Borrows, Book review, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sport

‘The Hurricane: The Turbulent Life and Times of Alex Higgins’ by Bill Burrows

TheHurricane

Non-Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 368 pages; 2003.

Let’s get one thing straight: I am not a snooker fan. But I’ve been interested in Alex “Hurricane” Higgins after seeing a TV documentary on him several years ago. He seemed like an intriguing character; a sporting genius who did much to take snooker from the dingy pool halls into the realms of prime-time TV but who managed, somehow, to make a fortune and then blow it all on drink, drugs and women

Bill Borrows’ unauthorised book pulls no punches. The opening chapter has to be one of the best opening chapters of any biography I’ve ever read. It somehow captures the strange world that Higgins now inhabits, his cantankerous and difficult nature, and his sad demise from snooker legend to drunkard and drifter.

If you know nothing about snooker, the book is highly readable and, at times, just plain laugh-out-loud funny, as the following extract reveals:

He took off his hat, pulled a comb out of his pocket, dipped it in a glass of vodka and orange on the table, stood up and then combed his hair in the mirror over the fireplace. It is always the little things which give it away.

In many ways The Hurricane is a bit like a car crash: you know what’s coming but you can’t tear your eyes away. Higgins’ penchant for self-destruction, his flawed genius and his vulnerability make this a thoroughly entertaining, if somewhat sobering, read. My only quibble is that it lacks a glossary of snooker terms. But all in all, you’d be hard pressed to find a more interesting and jaw-dropping sporting biography.