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Found 6 results

  1. Milkman is a stream of consciousness story narrated by an unnamed young woman living in an unnamed part of Belfast (probably the Ardoyne), some time in the late 1970s. By way of context, the intensity of the killings in the early 1970s – especially the civilian deaths – had subsided; there had been population movement and people had retreated into small, “safe” pockets exclusively populated by people of the same political tradition (which was also generally correlated to people’s national identity and religion). Both unionists and nationalists still thought they could win the war through armed conflict, and the political voice of Sinn Féin had not yet come to the fore. The Hunger Strikes were still a couple of years into the future and most people could remember a time before the British Army was deployed to assist the civil power… So the novel is almost a love story set in this quite specific time period. Our narrator lives in a Catholic enclave of North Belfast. She reads 19th century novels while walking, which marks her out as a bit odd. Her maybe-boyfriend is a car mechanic from another unspecified Catholic district of Belfast. She is from a large family, four-ish brothers and three sisters and Ma. Da is dead. Our narrator talks to herself extensively in a colloquial Belfast voice that hinges on repetition and over-explanation. It is a sarcastic voice, cynical about the sectarian conflict and the motives of those who engaged in it. She narrates in euphemisms: the Sorrows, Renouncers of the State, Defenders of the State, the country across the water, the country across the border. People are second sister, the real milkman, chef, the tablets girl, Somebody McSomebody. Similarly places are not names and although most are recognisable – the reservoirs and the parks is Cavehill Road; the ten minute area is Carlisle Circus; the usual place is Milltown cemetery – the euphemisms allow liberties to be taken with the geography. The resulting text is very dense, often circular (at the very least non-linear) and pretty intense. It is like Eimear McBride crossed with James Kelman. The story is one of personal love and personal tragedy set within a dysfunctional society. Our narrator wants to be with maybe-boyfriend, but is admired by Milkman (a senior ranking paramilitary) and Somebody McSomebody (a wannabe paramilitary – was this a time before spides?). In a world where normal law and order does not operate, where law is made by the paramilitaries and is mutable, where whispers and innuendoes constitute evidence, this is a dangerous space. Our narrator knows the perils and even the most mundane activities – jogging by the reservoirs, buying chips, learning French, winning a scrap Blower Bentley supercharger – can be fraught with danger. Her quirky narration and eccentric world view manage to create deliciously black comedy from these dangers. Milkman is a timely novel. This period of the late 1970s has been largely airbrushed out of both world and Northern Irish history. Nowadays the Republican movement has been rehabilitated. They are seen to champion human rights and to lead the equality agenda. Its history is seen to be the ballot box in one hand and the armalite in the other. Their community justice is seen to have been a viable – almost legitimate – alternative to the RUC and the state agencies. It is often almost assumed that those who lost their lives (apart from in the early 1970s) had been “involved”. But what we see is a violent society with kangaroo courts based on self-interest and hypocrisy, arbitrary expulsions, witch hunts, suspicion. Paramilitaries tyrannise their own communities but the communities seem to lap it up. Each fresh atrocity is just casually dropped into conversation. More than anything, our narrator, her family and friends needed stability and predictability. What they got was the law of the jungle. And we know from history that they had 15 more years of this ahead of them before the first signs of the re-emergence of normality. Of course all this is viewed from a nationalist vantage point but we can safely assume that the situation was mirrored in the loyalist community across the road. And Milkman is also relevant to current developments as we start to see the emergence of an anti-political movement based on extreme and ill-planned actions. Brexit as a response to immigration and crime. Walls and travel bans and flip-flopping between nations and leaders being best friends and beyond the pale. If Milkman has a failing, it is that the meandering narration can frustrate the reader. There are few natural pauses, there can be a feeling that we have already covered this ground, ideas and phrases repeat. But they do add up to a work that is strong enough to carry the frustration. Milkman is a mature work that does say something new (or at least say it in a new way) in a field that has been ploughed often before. *****
  2. Absolutely loved The Fire Starters. Maybe it was all the references to Connswater Tesco where I used to do my shopping (though it was better when it was still Stewarts). This is a comic novel set in the heart of loyalist East Belfast. Sammy Agnew is a decommissioned paramilitary trying to cope with civilian life. Jonathan Murray is a GP whose heart is not really in his work. Both share a feeling of irrelevance; both share concerns that their children are growing up to become monsters. Much of the humour is derived from a deadpan explanation of the cultural mores of the protestant working man. With a straight fact, we are told of the traditions of the Twelfth; the need to assert cultural supremacy over the neighbouring Catholics by the building of immensely tall bonfires; and the injustice of the lack of appreciation for these acts of fealty by the State that they are designed to venerate. And there is Jonathan's first person narrative that sneers at his patients - especially the older and poorer sections of society - as he himself feasts on red wine and pizza. Then, every now and then, the Sammy and Jonathan narratives will break for a vignette of a child with some extraordinary and esoteric superpower - with some superpowers more useful than others. Being able to turn into a boat, for example, is probably less useful than, say, the ability to fly. Both Sammy and Jonathan are simultaneously grotesque and loveable. There is a sense that they put on an external act to satisfy others' expectations but underneath there is a genuine human. They feel real. The novel is also hugely referential. Some references - to popular culture, music, the Anonymous movement, politicians - are quite obvious. Others are more subtle - there's more than a hint, for example, of the NIO Cats In The Cradle advert; or the Midnight's Children superpowers. And then there's this idea of linking prodigy to fire starters... Spotting these references adds enormously to the fun. The plot as it unfolds is a masterpiece. It leads the reader off to expect some kind of terrorist/police procedural but in fact is a really insightful look at the relationships between parents and children; the aspirations we have for our kids and how we handle things when they don't turn out quite the way we expected; the way we understand their uniqueness in a world where other people's children blur into a single society. I really cannot find fault in The Fire Starters. I wholeheartedly recommend this novel. *****
  3. The First Day is a really well crafted novel exploring love, loyalty, forgiveness and revenge. Samuel Orr is a pastor in East Belfast. He is married and has children. One day, inexplicably, he meets Anna, a literature PhD student from across the divide. They fall for each other and Samuel Junior is the result. The first half of the novel is told in third person by a very present narrator, throwing in editorial comment. It is heavily laden with biblical references - perhaps also Samuel Beckett references that I wouldn't recognise - telling the sorry tale of Samuel and Anna. Samuel wrestles with conflicting loyalties to Anna and his wife; to God and to his congregation. He tries to do the right thing, but sometimes there is no right thing to be done. This part of the novel is not a new plot but it is told in such a distinctive way, and the spirit of Belfast is evoked with brilliance. The second half of the novel is set thirty years later - some distance in the future - where we meet Sam Jr in New York where he works in the Met art gallery. He is haunted both psychologically and literally by Philip, his half brother who has never forgiven the two Samuels for the infidelity. Sam Jr narrates this in first person but, ironically, it loses some of the immediacy and feeling of the first half of the novel. The time and place never seems to be fully created and the plotting becomes somewhat more obscure. The chronology gets really hazy and it is not always clear what is driving the characters, what is motivating them to do what they do. It's still a good read, but just not as captivating as the earlier sections. Overall this is an impressive novel that captures some of the nuances of Northern Ireland society without being captured by the obvious divisions of sectarianism and politics. It demonstrates real innovation in narrative voice and structure, and leaves the reader wanting more. That's pretty good for a debut novel. ****0
  4. It’s a little known fact that Lionel Shriver lived in Belfast for 12 years from 1987-1999. I shared a city with her and never knew – OMG. Anyway, shortly into her sojourn in the North, Lionel Shriver published a Troubles novel called The Bleeding Heart – later re-issued under the title Ordinary Decent Criminals. It was not a success. As Lionel Shriver herself acknowledges half way through the book, saying “the North was a tiny, exclusive Hell: only one and a half million people on earth would get your jokes”. So probably writing a book full of jokes about the North designed to offend and alienate all of those one and a half million people in equal measure was never going to end well… And Ordinary Decent Criminals is very funny. There are caricatures of the various political factions, paramilitary groupings, religious bigots, soldiers, peace brokers and writers. They are universally drunken, mediocre, unfaithful and have flexible morality. Shriver’s central thesis is that the Troubles were not, for the most part, terribly troublesome and the people of the North got off on pretending to be scary hard-men when going to great lengths to avoid actually inflicting real damage. Even the Enniskillen bomb is portrayed as a terrible mistake based on the timer being prepared without taking the end of daylight savings into account. Thus, she seems to argue, the paramilitary activity that did take place was more the work of ordinary decent criminals hiding behind a veneer of political respectability. The story itself is Estrin, a young American woman who has spent the past decade wandering the globe, landing up running a squalid hoods’ bar in West Belfast. She catches the eye of Farrell O’Phelan, a freelance bomb disposal engineer who has come to be seen as a celebrity-expert on The Troubles, assisting and irritating both traditions in equal measure. Farrell has a plan to bring peace to the North, in all probability paving the way for his schoolfriend Angus McBride to become Secretary of State in a power sharing Executive. The story feels quite convoluted for something that ought really to be straightforward, and does tend to be used as an opportunity for political grandstanding. After a couple of hundred pages, the reader is left feeling that the story is drifting somewhat, whilst the big political point has already been made. For all that, there are enough wry observations; namechecks of familiar shops and bars; overt references to real people; and a crystallisation of political thinking in the years immediately preceding the actual ceasefires that make ODCs worth sticking with. This is an important slice of cultural history, augmented by a satirical and entertaining glossary at the end that many readers may not notice. I suspect ODCs is more than loosely autobiographical. Estrin looks very much like Shriver, torn between observing the community and becoming part of it. It is not a perfect novel, but it does demonstrate a deep and mature understanding of both the history and the c.1990 present of Northern Ireland, presumably the product of many afternoons in the Linenhall Library. It offers a different perspective to the many novels written by Northern Ireland’s own authors and supports this perspective with authentic detail. The novel deserves to be better known, but finding an audience is always going to be difficult. When I asked Lionel Shriver to sign my first edition some years ago, I told her that I loved reading Northern Ireland novels. She replied ruefully that nobody else seemed to. ****0
  5. Glenn Patterson is described on the back cover by Will Self as "Northern Ireland's Prose Laureate". That's a bold claim, especially since Patterson is almost unknown outside of Northern Ireland (and probably not that well known within it), but he is one of a handful of Northern writers who have something significant to say. The Mill For Grinding Old People Young is basically a history lesson for Belfast. Narrated in 1897 by an old man, Gilbert Rice, looking back at his youth, we find ourselves in Belfast pretty much as the Industrial Revolution arrives. If you love Belfast, it will be a treat to visit familiar streets and see them in such a different context. And it may be shocking to realise how little of that history we ever knew. For example, we find Castle Place dominated by (who would have thought it) a Castle. The castle of the Chichesters, no less, one of whom (Lord Donegall) gave his name to so many of the streets. Instead of the City Hall, we have the White Linen Hall - hence Linenhall Street and the Linenhall Library. Ormeau is the country seat of the Chichesters; Ballymacarrett is a separate and rural settlement across the river; the docks were tidal sludge; Shankhill had an H, Glengormley was all farms, and Belfast was 100% Protestant. Almost... The story, such as it is, concerns plans and schemes to upgrade the harbour and docks. Plus, Gilbert discovers what's inside his trousers as he falls for a serving maid at the wonderfully named inn: The Mill For Grinding Old People Young. The story is told in Gilbert's voice, a pastiche Victorian language. Gilbert is great fun - a young man of a well heeled family, many of whom died of typhoid, living with his grandfather in a grand house on Donegall Place with gardens leading down to Fountain Street (now build over by large retail stores). Gilbert is trying out the world for size, unsure exactly whether to be a squire or a larrikin, stepping blithely into dangerous places... Gilbert is not really bad, he's just terribly innocent. The story, though, is secondary to the history lesson. The novel as a whole is, perhaps, an urban counterpoint to William Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry - written at the time this novel is set. Broadly, it works well and paints a picture of a place that is on the move, an engine of commerce with more in common with London, Liverpool, Glasgow and mainland Europe than with its agricultural hinterland. It has inspired me to Google maps, pictures (sadly there seem to be no pictures of the Castle), and imagine myself treading the same streets all those years ago. Pat Catney used to run history talks at The Kitchen Bar - before it, too, became history. I always regretted not going. I guess this novel is full of what I missed. ****0
  6. Glenn Patterson is a long-established Belfast novelist whose works tend to focus on mundane lives with a backdrop of the Northern Ireland sectarian divide. Often these references are subtle, almost incidental. The Rest Just Follows starts out in much the same way – Craig Robinson is a young Grammar School boy. Maxine Neill failed the 11 Plus. StJohn Nimmo is a new boy at the Grammar School with a fondness of cigarettes. All three seem to have dysfunctional families. But unlike some of Patterson’s other novels, the details seem confused and hazy. Patterson has always had a thing where timelines blur a bit and we can switch from the present to the past in the course of a single sentence. But this has always been made navigable through clear and distinctive storylines and a single uniting theme. The Rest Just Follows lacks the clarity of storylines and doesn’t seem to have a central focus, meaning the opaque timelines just confuse things even more. The narrative moves, almost without notice, from school to university to work to parenthood to adulthood. There are some signposts of passing time – movements in the political process, known atrocities, social and physical change in the built environment. But the known events are often fictionalised, making it unclear as to exactly how much time has elapsed – and hence how old the characters are. Some of the details are plain wrong – the first civil partnership ceremony in fact took place in 2005 rather than the late 1980s/early 1990s that would fit with the novel’s sequencing – which make them unreliable as markers of time. The narrative is also disconcerting as it moves from the generic backdrop of the The Troubles to some very specific events and specific people. We see the formation of the Women’s Coalition, for example; and we meet a thinly disguised Jim Gray. Some of the other details seem close but not quite a match for real events. Craig, for example, is approached by a unionist political group – was this supposed to be U3W or something else? As well as the blurring of fiction and fact, the blurring of timelines, there is a fuzziness of purpose. In Patterson’s previous novels, there has been a clear story at play. Sometimes that was an individual moving from point A to point B; in Number 5 it was the story of a house; in The International it was the human story behind a known atrocity. This just feels like there is not enough to tie the characters together – not enough to make them interesting. All the brothers and sisters and boyfriends and girlfriends means the focus shifts too much for the reader to remain really engaged. It is all a bit too slippery. It’s a shame for such a consistently good writer to have produced a novel that is so disappointing. It feels like an attempt to recreate Fat Lad, Patterson’s Belfast classic, but without the sense of immediacy or concentration. Patterson is apparently working on novel Number 10 right now; I hope it sees a return to form. ***00
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