Felicity McCall’s new novella opens in the first person with a narrator in a court room fixedly counting the plaster roses on its ceiling. The court is in Northern Ireland and the setting and subject of the case and of the book is the apposite subject of child abuse.
McCall’s narrator chillingly moves from the close counting of the plaster roses to the description of the man in the dock, and it is the start of a deliberately frank and unforgiving prose style as she notes the ‘white belly hanging over the waist of his grey striped polyester trousers’, the smell of his jacket with its ‘odour [of] dried sweat mixed with the sourness of an ulcerated stomach'.
As well as such avowedly close description – which refuses to look away or to avoid the ugly and the real – there are sentences that move into a more poetic register as our protagonist asks of her apparent attacker inwardly, ‘What is your inarticulate litany?’
As she listens to the judge’s summing up, the narrative voice checks itself for what she calls the ‘clichéd observation of the bitter’, which compares the sentence of the victim to that of her attacker, when in fact for her ‘life will mean life’. And so she returns to counting and ‘the comfort of ritual'.
At the end of the first chapter the voice identifies herself as a survivor of abuse and the man in the dock as ‘one of them. The Pigeon Men.’ The book then leaves the adult narrator to tell the story of 12-year-old Carrie and her extended family.
Carrie is considered a strange child for loving to read. She lives in her head with plans of escape eventually through studying. The cause of her strangeness and her tormented sense of self and body are slowly and darkly revealed.
The narrative, which has changed to a third-person voice, takes us back to when Carrie is eight-years-old and first goes to visit her grandfather in his pigeon shed – a domain that is strictly demarcated as male. The grandfather uses a strange diction. He speaks of the pigeons in the second person and tells Carrie 'you’re getting real woman now’.
On one such visit to the pigeon shed, Granda and Carrie are joined by her adult cousin Craig and, on being told graphically and crudely the details of how pigeons mate, Carrie feels ‘a pulse throbbing between her legs. She has a sudden urge to touch herself, to rub her finger up and down the crotch of her knickers.’
I find this passage both disturbing and odd. Would a child, who is being made to feel uncomfortable in the presence of a much older cousin who is speaking graphically, feel sexually aroused? Or is there a suggestion that something has already happened to this child that brings such a response?
Immediately following this there is the awful first instance of abuse as Granda ‘pours the pigeon into her cupped hands’, all the while encircling Carrie and the bird from behind, rubbing himself against her and grunting as he asks her to feel the breast of the bird.
Carrie attempts to talk through the awful event, leading to a heavily ironic description by the abuser of why the homing pigeons return home ‘because it’s too dangerous out there in the wild’.
McCall is good on these realities of child abuse – the place where it most often occurs, the strategies of disembodiment and disassociation used to survive it, and most chillingly the way a family can somehow both know and ignore what is happening.
And yet certain aspects of the story remain unclear. There is talk of stopping visits to Granda's house for years because of something having happened previously, but we don’t learn what this is – did he abuse Carrie’s sister first, and is this why she never comes home? If that is the case, why would her parents not attempt to protect their second daughter?
The visits are suspended again between the years when Carrie is eight and 12, but again the child, and we, do not learn the reason for this, or why the family eventually return and put Carrie in danger.
The house that the grandfather shares is a damaged household – her cousin sleeps with a locked door and hates the pigeons, her aunt doesn't share a bed with her uncle, all of them alcoholics. Carrie’s own mother and father seem terrified of her growing up, refusing to buy her a bra or to prepare her properly for menstruation. Are these all the reactions of a family riven by a history of sexual abuse?
The abuse becomes much worse, the book much darker. Carrie's body becomes like some awful symbol of corruption, covered in boils and suppurating wounds. These descriptions are so grotesque at times as to seem unbelievable, and the reader is left again to wonder if the wounds described are more symbolic than real.
The Pigeon Men is a powerful, beautifully written and compelling but disturbing book. Developed from a short story, it carries some of the contractions of that form in ways that make me want further development, and which point up a disjunction between the graphic nature of the detail of the abuse and the vagueness of other aspects of the story.
McCall has worked with survivors so we can trust the veracity of this story and understand the need for it, but a novel with so little light is, of course, very difficult to read.
The Pigeon Men is out now, published by Guildhall Press.