Jump Derry is not an instruction – but it could be. In the month when the city’s emerging excellence has been showcased to the world, Christine Donovan’s debut novel explores the leaps – physical and metaphorical – that people here are taking every day.
In its basic form, the book is a coming-of-age story, set in 2005 and about a 16-year-old Irish dancer, Janie, who falls in love with Martin, a Parkour enthusiast.
And no, I didn’t know either – despite the fact that I’d seen it many times around the town. Practitioners of Parkour, aka traceurs, are climbers, jumpers and runners whose mission is to overcome any physical obstacle in their way by adapting their movements to their environment.
In short, they are Spidermen (and women). And some of them are incredibly dextrous. I’ve seen free-runners, as they’re also known, scale the Derry walls, climb five-storey buildings, hurdle railings and bollards, and jump from rooftops onto lampposts. It’s terrifying but exhilarating - even to watch.
And so it is with Donovan’s book. Janie and Martin, the new couple, have to negotiate their own testing obstacles – as does Janie’s mother, Marianne, who is still tormented by the violence done to both her immediate family and her native town.
The foibles of the fledgling relationship – sex, peer-pressure, in-laws – are outlined with great humour. And author Donovan conveys teenage angst with all the style and hormonal intensity of a Sue Townsend or a Helen Fielding.
But for me, the real beauty in this book lies with her portrayal of the mother. Marianne’s flashbacks evoke the threatening, claustrophobic North of the 1970s and 80s so acutely that the reader breathes out audibly every time the action switches back to the present day.
The image of Marianne and her boyfriend fleeing to Dublin and struggling to remain ‘Tearproof’ – like the Undertones song, while the town is burning and their friends at home are dying, is both haunting and heart-breaking: ‘I know that even though we’re crying there’s one day when maybe we’re going to be tearproof. A bit of us has got be now, because if we weren’t, we wouldn’t get up everyday in the morning, we wouldn’t be able to, would we?”
Any book with a ‘Fantastic’ from novelist Ronan Bennett below the title is worth at least a cursory glance. This, however, is worth reading from cover to cover. Not since Glen Patterson’s Burning Your Own has the despair of the conflict’s blackest period been so accurately captured. But as Donovan reminds us, sometimes it’s also possible to make a jump.
Jump Derry by Christine Donovan (Sarsen Press) will be formally launched at the City of Culture offices, Guildhall Square on Saturday July 31, at 2pm. Jump Derry can be purchased from CultureNorthernIreland's Amazon store.