Glenn Patterson is one of Northern Ireland's national treasures. His novels over the past thirty years have documented the social history of Belfast, both contemporary and historic, with a great deal of love. Where other writers have focused mainly on the Troubles and the Catholic part of the community, Patterson writes from a Protestant perspective and his novels have kept the Troubles firmly in the background. Serendipitously, his writing has coincided with the Peace Process, allowing him to reflect great social change across his works.
Where We Are Now is about middle age. Herbie is somewhere in mid-life - perhaps in his 50s - living somewhere in East Belfast. He has been laid off from his work as a payroll manager; as his company downsized, so too did the payroll Department. His ex-wife Tanya lives down south with her new partner Martin. He fills his time walking to the Public Records Office in the Titanic Quarter and offering research services to the visitors looking to recreate their family histories. His speciality is the records of public applotments. In between researches he drinks coffee in Sam's cafe and shops in Lidl.
Herbie is lonely. He drifts into other people's conversations, lives on the edge of other people's lives. He used to ave more going on in his life; he remembers former times living in Mount Oriel when he and Tanya socialised a bit, did things. They had an identity. But now, in reduced circumstances, a visit from his daughter Beth forces Herbie to see his life now for what it is.
This is, of course, a metaphor for where Belfast sits now. Trading on a recent history of being edgy, dangerous, Belfast now welcomes cruise ships, ferries its visitors around in tour buses to take selfies in front of murals. The paramilitaries no longer go on military manoeuvres but still stand over local businesses demanding protection money and free pizzas. They are hard men turning to flab. They still blight the lives of the communities they bleed, but they no longer impress anyone.
And as the Troubles fade, Northern Ireland tries to hark back to an even earlier history - the artificial creation that is the Titanic Quarter. Modern buildings set on the derelict land left when the Harland and Wolff shipyard closed, named for its most famous ship. A ship which, of course, sank on its maiden voyage. Meanwhile, in the city centre there is real history that is being renovated to the point of extinction.
Where We Are Now does have the signs of new beginnings. Sam and Derek - a same sex couple - seem to be accepted into the community. There are migrants coming to Belfast - although whether Brexit will let them stay remains to be seen. As the sub-post offices close they make way for new enterprises. The black taxis are making way for Uber. Even Herbie might find a way to reinvent himself.
There is plenty of observational stuff - the small talk of the middle classes; the sparsely attended local football game (I presume Glentoran); the airport and its connections to the disappointing public transport network; the topography of East Belfast (although I could never quite work out where Herbie lived - perhaps Ballyhackamore); the migration of businesses to the petrol station. The characters also feel real, even though most of them wander in and out of the pages without ever setting the story alight. They are bit part players in the bigger story of a city that is having a mid-life crisis.
So this isn't particularly a plot led story; it isn't exciting or shocking. It is more a chapter in Glenn Patterson's life work that suggests a turning point. Let's see where it goes next.
The quirky female narrator in a Northern Ireland novel is not a new thing but it’s often an enjoyable thing.
Big Girl is Majella O’Neill, an underachieving young woman of stout proportions who is squandering her considerable academic potential by working six nights a week in her local chip shop. The small town is Aghybogey, a thinly disguised version of Castlederg in County Tyrone.
So Majella keeps a list of all the things she doesn’t like, including sub-categories. She also keeps a much shorter list of things she does like, many of which are related to food. She uses these lists to narrate the story of a week following the murder of her grandmother. Given that her father has disappeared ten years ago, Uncle Bobby died while priming a bomb 16 years ago, and her mother is a non-functioning alcoholic, this presents Majella with an opportunity to become an adult and master of her own destiny. Or she could just keep working for the Hunters in the fish shop.
In truth, not much happens during the week; and what does happen is glossed over by Majella as she focuses her thoughts on the foibles of the chip shop regulars, hating alcohol (because of what it is doing to her mother and her home life) and looking for bedding. She drinks a bit, has sex a bit, and eats fish suppers. The charm is in her cynical, comical way of looking at the world, mixed with tragedy that she resolutely refuses to take her place in the real world, instead just hiding behind routines and tics.
This is a really good evocation of small town Ulster, told in a local vernacular that will bring a smile to those who know it and frustrate them those who don’t. The self-segregation of the two halves of the community (the Protestants would only dare come to A Salt and Battered in daylight, even though it serves better chips than the Protestant chip shop); the relatives away across the water; the stories of what you did in the war... If there’s something that sets this apart from similar semi-comic Northern Ireland novels it would be the rural setting west of the Bann allowing for ludicrous ideas like the poshy-woshy Omagh accent and thinking of Strabane as urban.
I just wish Michelle Gallen had done something a bit more with Majella. The story is mostly back-story. The story of the dead grandmother, although acting as a McGuffin, never really takes off and I’m not sure there’s any real character development. This means that some of the repetitiveness of Majella’s life does seep into the text. There are only so many ways of ordering a fish supper or having banter with your work colleague as you put the chips in the fryer.
So four stars rather than five.
Oh, and I read an advance copy. I do hope the final version is more consistent in the name of Johann-Pol, or Johann-Paul, or Yawn-Pawl, or Yawn-Paul...
I loved Memorial Device - For The Good Times feels like an awkward second novel. Basically we have some lads who are into comics and laughs who've joined the IRA. First they take over a comic shop in Belfast, then they end up on the mainland plotting atrocities.
It was good, funny in parts and horrific in others. But basically, I didn't buy the characters and very specifically, I didn't buy Sammy, the main protagonist. The boys seemed to be driven neither by ideology nor by psychopathy. i just don't believe the Ra would have taken on such uncommitted, ill-disciplined jokers.
Sure there's some nice scene setting - Belfast and the Ardoyne in the 70s and some wonderful, biting humour. But the politics was done better in Milkman, and the humour was done better in The Fire Starters. For The Good Times does try to break out of the genre of Troubles novels, but in doing that it sort of becomes a parody of itself.
There have been worse Troubles novels (mostly by Americans) but this is far from the best. All this is made more disappointing when we know how well David Keenan can write and innovate from Memorial Device.
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.
Eoin McNamee is seldom an easy read and The Vogue is no exception. The novel opens with the discovery of a body in shifting sands in 2000, somewhere near a wartime aerodrome called Pirnmill. It isn't specified, but this seems to be somewhere in County Down in Northern Ireland. The place names that are given are fictitious. This is disconcerting: previous McNamee novels have been located very specifically in time and place, even if occasionally the geography goes a bit wrong. Previous novels have also focused on specific incidents - unsolved murders, the Princess Diana conspiracy, the Shankill butchers. Being cast into an unknown, fictionalised location and dealing with fictitious people and fictitious crimes makes the novel feel less compelling than previous offerings. But anyway...
There are three timelines. One is set in 1944, a black US airforce serviceman is on trial for a capital crime. He is a black man in a white man's world and the normal standards of justice do not seem to apply. The second timeline is in the 1970s with some teenagers running away from a children's home. And the third timeline is set in 2000, following the discovery of the body. There are dark secrets running through the local community that span generations and the body is the catalyst for uncovering them.
The three timelines are deeply confusing, especially when McNamee takes steps to deliberately obscure the connections. Some of the writing is brilliant - the prose is spare and evocative - but it never quite adds up to a gripping story. The shocking reveals don't shock because the reader is not sufficiently invested in the story. It's more like a Scooby Doo reveal that nobody could possibly have guessed - that explains rather than astounds. The characters didn't feel fully rounded. One was irritating in her verbal tics, and one - our MOD lawyer - was not completely believable. On the other hand, there were some strong set pieces. The wartime dances, the cinema, the airbase, the court martial were all well done.
I hope that McNamee's next novel will focus again on real locations and real events. That is where he is strongest, blending truth, intrigue and conspiracy. The Vogue is not a bad novel - just not as good as his others.