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.
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.
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.
Bernard MacLaverty is a sublime writer and Midwinter Break is as good as anything he has ever written.
Gerry and Stella Gilmore are a long-married couple of pensionable age, living in Glasgow but originally from the north of Ireland. Gerry is fond of a nightcap and Stella has quite a strong Catholic faith. They know one another inside out. They have decided to take a mid-winter break to Amsterdam, perhaps to celebrate their enduring marriage.
Gradually, and gently, we start to see the flaws in the characters emerge. This is done with such grace; the reader knows, likes and empathises with both Gerry and Stella; the flaws that emerge are real, but we see the real people beneath and they are likeable. As they wander the streets of Amsterdam - both together and separately - they start to discover more about themselves and each other. Partly, they explore the present day, partly their lives in Glasgow, and partly their lives in Ireland.
This is a novel about ageing. I recognise myself in Gerry. In fact, the similarity between Gerry's life and my own is uncanny - right down to the night-time leg cramps. There are themes of unfulfilled ambition, fatigue, closure. There is guilt, including the nagging guilt about minor slights and mistakes from years ago. But also there is lots and lots of love. Not bodice ripping young love, but old, mature love that is too often taken for granted.
There is change, often not for the better. The change of a nature of a community, the change brought by significant events, and the change brought simply by time, with two people slowly ceasing to be who they once were. The questions that arise are whether to resist or accept those changes. It is an illustration of the Serenity Prayer:
"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference."
Midwinter Break is deeply moving. It speaks of truths that many of us will face some day soon.