The Good Son
Belfast author Paul McVeigh’s debut novel may be set during the Troubles but is a charming coming-of-age story with a refreshingly complex young narrator at its heart
Having previously written comedy sketches, and had his short stories published in various literary journals and anthologies, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and 5, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Paul McVeigh’s debut novel is a compelling mix of both forms.
The Good Son, published by Salt Publishing on April 15, 2015, has already attracted rave reviews. Fellow Northern Irish novelist Lucy Caldwell has dubbed it 'a coming-of-age story written with a sharp eye and a big heart'. It may be a story set during the Troubles, but ultimately it is one of hope.
McVeigh's young narrator is Mickey, a bit of a mammy’s boy with an air of superiority about him, who was 'born the day the Troubles started'. '“Wasn’t I, Ma?” says me. “It was you that started them son,” says she…’
Dropping the reader neatly into a family scene, the first page immediately sets the tone for the rest of the novel, with instant action and the introduction of not one, but five, key characters. It’s deftly done, and the reader wonders how Mickey – who refers to himself as ‘Look Skywalker’ – will function amid the grittiness and danger lurking within his neighbourhood.
McVeigh’s story subsequently spans the course of Mickey’s summer holiday, the last before he starts big school. Mickey is from a working class family ensconced in west Belfast, and has his sights set on America; from the off, he is intent on getting out of the place.
As a narrator, Mickey brings a fresh voice and perspective to the Troubles as represented in fiction. Despite the ongoing violence, the fact that his family has ‘no money’ and his father prefers drinking to working, Mickey retains his sense of humour throughout. He is excluded by his peers, but has a strong bond with his sister, Wee Maggie, and his dog, Killer. He tells us he is never going to be like his Da, and helps his Ma out as much as he can. As Mickey says, 'I’m a good boy'.
However, he also partakes in glue-sniffing, ‘lumbering’ and smoking. This is the reality of the world that Mickey inhabits and the reader, if not quite Mickey, can see where his future is headed if, indeed, he doesn’t escape. His heavy-drinking father, who argues with his mother so that the neighbours will hear, considers himself to be better than them, and is a clear warning of what Mickey could become.
It is our hero's relationship with his mother, however, that takes centre stage – an interesting point to note, given that McVeigh has since admitted that the mother figure barely appeared in earlier drafts of the novel.
A hard-working and vocal character, Mickey’s mum is like a grenade with the pin pulled out. One minute she screams that she will 'break yer two legs', the next, she laughs at Mickey’s impression of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. It is primarily through this relationship that we see Mickey’s overwhelming desire to be loved.
Meanwhile, Mickey rejects his peers, but immediately joins in playing on the odd occasion that he is asked – this is a character torn between wanting to stand apart as a superior specimen and desperately hoping to be accepted as one of the crowd.
As the summer holidays begin, Mickey’s countdown to signing up at big school also starts. However, he discovers that his plans in that regard have been somewhat altered. This presents a neat timeline for McVeigh to sketch his story upon, with each chapter like a separate piece of short fiction.
Indeed, The Good Son actually grew out of an original short story penned by McVeigh some years ago, and its author’s skill in writing short fiction translates brilliantly into novel form. The pace of the book is expertly handled, each page moving the story onward.
Does Mickey manage to extricate himself from the iron-grip of Troubles-torn Belfast? Does his straight-talking approach to life, and his sense of entitlement, help or hinder him? To protect his family, sometimes a good boy will do whatever it takes...
The Good Son is bursting with action, love, loss, betrayal and so much more – it is the sort of book you pick up and hours later emerge from, wondering where the time went. Like a fine point of light, the desire to be loved and accepted drives The Good Son toward an ending that leaves the reader satisfied, if somewhat unsettled.
The Good Son is published by Salt Publishing, is available from April 15.