The Rest Just Follows

Glenn Patterson's nostalgic new novel recalls the strangely free and quiet Belfast of the 1970s

‘Why does nobody get hives any more?’ is the kind of question Glenn Patterson loves to ask at readings.

The question is delicious shorthand for the writer’s ability to remember and to call up a tiny but precise detail that the rest of us have forgotten, but which immediately transports us to another era and brings that time vividly to life – hives as the madeleines of Belfast.

Proust’s was a private shorthand. It is important that in Patterson’s remembrances the recognitions are communal and shared, and that nod to communal memory and ‘identity’ is there in his new novel’s subtitle, ‘Up Here’, which contains within it the idea of how we understand ourselves as different to ‘Down There’.

Or perhaps it is even cleverer than that, allowing the book to contain within it the kind of attitude that makes it perfectly OK for a respected RTE host of an arts programme to admit on air, ‘I don’t really read many of them’ – meaning books from up here, north of the border, Northern Ireland.

And so, reading a Glenn Patterson novel is like stepping inside a Tardis, with the author as our own urbane doctor. Patterson's novels are expansive and a form of time-travel in which, within paragraphs, the reader is transported.

In The Rest Just Follows, it is initially to the strangely free and quiet world of 1970s Belfast, before the internet and mobile phones, or in fact any phones, to a time when there were ‘visitors’, not from other planets but from places that could seem as far away.

'There being no phone in the house in those years,' writes Patterson, 'people had a habit of just turning up; second cousins once removed, old neighbours of his parents, returned from Canada or Australia, or so they said.’

The novel quickly introduces the book’s three protagonists through their school reports, which seem to invite us to imagine the trajectory of their lives, like the children in the Seven Up television series of that time, whose adult life was all too clear in their child faces.

Craig is a ‘Quiet boy, you’d hardly know he was there’; clever Maxine is destined for great things until the cruelty of the 11 plus consigns her to the prison of secondary school. And the third character is the wonderfully named St John (Sinjin) Nimmo, the Sebastian Flytte of the novel, who hails from one of those wacky upper- middle-class families that seem to form their own commonwealth and not to need other people.

St John's family are not as rich as the Marchmains but just as dotty. When we first meet his mother, Mo, she has removed all the curtains from their big Malone house in order that ‘from now on we will observe natural rhythms’.

By way of a whole host of madeleines – Junior Choice, Opportunity Knocks, Tales from the Riverbank, Dr Whites, Hummel figures, Penguin bars – the novel follows these three individuals from 1974, and Patterson depicts the contracted degrees of separation to which Belfast subscribes: six seeming lavish and wasteful.

So the novel weaves a complex web of relationships in a city that is really a town and in which therefore lives constantly overlap and criss-cross each other like some manic game of French skipping.

He catches perfectly the slight accommodations and embarrassments of that – like, what do you do when your sister is now going out with someone who was once your friend, or when someone you once knew well and shared intimacies with returns to live here and you bump into each other?

Patterson is good on adolescence. He’s good on teenage sex too. There is a vividly chaotic sense of those times, unregulated and yet hopeful, despite the Troubles, a world not yet changed, initially at least, by Thatcher.

To say that for much of the book you would never know the Troubles are there is to misrepresent the novel – ‘The occasional bomb scare aside.' But it is one of its great strengths that Patterson manages to tell a story here that feels true to what it was like for many of us to live through.

That is to say that no matter how close the Troubles come – and every character in the novel is in some way affected by them – they are not the focus of the ordinary lived life; a fact emphasised in the gerunds that label the book’s parts: ‘Starting… Growing… Making it… Fucking… Starting… Again…’

The verbs are politically defiant, but the book’s tenor is gentler and more fond, closer to Beckett’s ‘Try again, fail again, fail better’, or to Heaney’s 'Keeping going'. This is the novel as social document, as place of primary record, which celebrates ultimately those who meet the challenge to keep going despite the forces stacked against them: disease, divorce, political violence.

Patterson's latest work celebrates those with the stamina to ‘stay on where it happens’, as is perhaps best summed up in the following line: ‘No more car-ferry daydreams. She would stay here. She would outlast him and his kind. Whatever it took, she would outlast them.'

The Rest Just Follows is out now, published by Faber & Faber.