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...
Nobber by oisin fagan
Nobber is a lawless unruly place. Not much has changed in the 670 years between when this is set and nowadays
In this novel, the plague has struck Ireland and noblemen are buying up land all over Ireland at a fraction of what it was worth a few years before. Meanwhile a marauding band of gaels are also causing havoc throughiut the lands.
Both groups reach the near deserted Co. Meath Town of nobber where the plague has enforced a curfew, only 3 or 4 inhabitants see the sunlight hours including the very strange nudist blacksmith.
Overall it did take me a little bit to get into this novel but oisin fagan has done a very good job in crafting the novel and I thought this was a very good novel.
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An aside on lawlessness in modern nobber
It’s a while since I read Night Boat to Tangier so some of the detail has softened. But I was left with a deep impression of two ageing Irish drug runners (Maurice and Charlie) passing the time as they wait at a ferry terminal expecting to intercept Maurice’s daughter Dilly.
The beauty is in the dialogue between the two as they wait - and as we learn more about the uneasy relationship between the pair. Maurice and Charlie are big wheels back home - they trail a wake of fear behind them - but on the grand scale of things, they are medium sized fish in a small pond. They have a history of falling out and falling back in with one another, compartmentalising some pretty big betrayals.
There is an air of menace throughout. It’s not clear why the men want to intercept Dilly, or even what they would do with her if they do meet, but there is as sense of significance. And, as we later see, Dilly is in no hurry to meet Maurice and Charlie.
Much of the novel is dialogue, and the premise (two people waiting for a third) is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. But the occasional introduction of other characters and the appearance of Dilly offer enough of a variation that this cannot be taken as a straight re-writing. Perhaps there’s also an element of John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction - discussing hamburgers and morality in between hits.
Night Boat to Tangier was entertaining and engaging - but did feel a bit like it was treading ground that Roddy Doyle has previously stood on. It’s a light and fast read that is grounded in our present times and will bring nods of recognition, but it probably doesn’t offer quite enough to offer an insight into these times for future readers.
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.