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The world is not short of Bildungsroman novels set in Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Invariably they feature Catholic kids growing up in West Belfast. You’ll not see much about the Troubles from a Protestant child’s perspective, and Heaven forbid that you might see something set in one of the other towns or cities – or <<shudders>> the countryside. There’s nary a blue bus in sight.

 

The Good Son is not about to break the mould. Mickey Donnelly is in his summer holidays between primary school and secondary school, living right in the heart of Belfast’s Ardoyne probably in 1978. This is an area surrounded on all sides by Protestants, patrolled heavily by the British Army, and run by the local command of the IRA. Mickey is familiar with the world of guns, bombs, balaclavas and threats.

The Good Son raises itself above the norm, though, in Mickey’s voice. Mickey is a sensitive soul, academically able but oppressed by the poverty of his family, the alcoholism of his father, and bullying at school for his effeminacy. He dreams of leaving the Ardoyne and sailing off to new opportunities in America. But Mickey is not (or certainly doesn’t perceive himself to be) a victim of the Troubles. It is simply the backdrop to his more personal problems and may even, sometimes, be a source of opportunity.

Mickey is endearing. He usually tries to do the right thing; to please his mother and to do right by those around him. In particular, he forms a bond with his dog that, in spite of his sensitive nature, he calls Killer. Killer is a kind of embodiment of Mickey’s hopes and dreams. From the very first chapter, Killer represents the impossible becoming possible. And as the novel progresses, Killer emboldens Mickey to look outside his own small enclave and see the wider world. Killer allows Mickey a focus for his conscience, an ear for his confession, and a driver for his resolve. There are obvious parallels between Mickey and Cuchullain.

The writing is first rate; although the events are fictional, there is an excellent sense of place and time. Paul McVeigh captures a sense of change. The old world of the 1960s and early 70s – with counter-service grocer’s shops, the civil rights movement, internment, local sink schools all about to slip into history. The new horizons were filled with ambition, supermarkets and a slowly simmering detente between the communities punctuated by tit-for-tat killings rather than big bomb atrocities. McVeigh manages to convey the change – both in society and in the Troubles – through the impact on individuals rather than grandstanding or editorial comment. And on a personal level, Mickey is at the transition from childhood to adulthood.

There is a great deal of humanity and compassion in the text. McVeigh avoids the easy trap of demonising a particular group – whether the paramilitaries, the clergy, the police or the (largely unseen) Protestants. Across the piece there is good and bad. It feels balanced. The relationships are beautifully constructed and complex – not just between Mickey and his mother, or Mickey and others – even the relationships between supporting characters are well thought through and reveal hidden depths.

Having read many similar novels, a common issue seems to be the difficulty in bringing the novel to an end when the Troubles are obviously ongoing. Approaches have varied from surreal to slapstick to tragic. They seldom feel right. But in this case, the ending feels genuine and quite moving. It’s no mean feat.

Did the world need The Good Son? Probably not. It doesn’t tell us anything new. The Troubles were long enough ago that one wonders whether Paul McVeigh lacks the confidence to bring us something contemporary – a bit like Liam O’Flaherty perpetually reliving the Irish Civil War or John LeCarre stuck in a cold war timewarp. But, for all that it may lack originality, it is a very good example of the genre and, being quite a short novel, is still worth a read.

 

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