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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.
 
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