Five Recent Novels

Gavin Carville argues that NI fiction remains in a formidable state

In 1990 the Irish writer Patrick McCabe said the boldest thing a writer from Ireland could attempt would be a sympathetic novel concerning the life of a priest. Glenn Patterson came close with That Which Was (2004), a warm and emotive novel that depicts a few hectic days in the life of Ken Avery, a young Presbyterian minister working in east Belfast .

The novel begins on the morning Avery is contacted by Larry, a man who has found himself in post-ceasefire Belfast but still plagued by his inner demons. Larry is convinced he has killed someone but his memory is unreliable and seems to consist of a few inexplicable fragments. This leads to a tense and traumatic journey into his past, the man’s story coming to represent how the country as a whole deals with the Troubles and its aftermath.

Patterson is skilled at sketching the tiny rituals of everyday life, the harmless bickering between man and wife, the struggles of a young couple with a newborn baby, and the scene where the many dead of the Troubles are momentarily brought back to life is sure to become a classic moment in Northern Irish fiction.

Sean O’Reilly’s second novel The Swing of Things (2004) is a darker work, following another casualty eager to escape a life of violence and political failure but finding himself dogged by circumstance.

The novel showcases O’Reilly’s brutal, beguiling prose to great effect, along with a welcome dose of humour lacking in his earlier work, Curfew (2000) and Love and Sleep (2002). Noel Boyle is the central character, an ex-IRA man now studying philosophy at Trinity College in Dublin .

He has been reformed in the eyes of the state but this seems of little benefit when facing civilian life. Boyle is a ‘ghost on the streets of his own city’ haunted by the violent deeds of his past, which seem less and less plausible and the actions of someone separate from himself.

He meets an eccentric street performer called Fada who takes him through a Dublin of immigrants, tourists and junkies. Any hope he has of redemption is constantly undermined by his growing obsession with the drowning of an unnamed foreign woman pulled from the Liffey that summer.

The novel is the first of O’Reilly’s to attempt a conventional plot, as Boyle’s former comrades arrive in Dublin to locate their wayward friend. This brings a fresh intensity to the occasionally over-stylised but always gripping prose. ‘Rubbish blew about like love letters fallen from the hands of the dying. The walls showed the last SOS piss messages, hardening pools of vomit like ditched shrivelling flags. The morning was a door hanging only by a buckled hinge.’

Eoin McNamee’s The Ultras (2004) employs material from real life, but oddly seems the least convincing of all the novels here. It follows Captain Robert Nairac’s attempt to infiltrate the IRA in south Armagh and his piece by piece disappearance into that covert world. Orbiting him is a sinister cast of cops and double agents, operating outside the law and using thuggery and murder to achieve their clandestine aims.

McNamee writes a highly stylised prose, powerful, poetic and occasionally in questionable taste – his images of casual violence often seem to beautify the ugly events he describes. Despite this the work is daring, brave, and examines this uncomfortable subterranean world with a firm unflinching eye. It’s the third in a series of novels which began with Resurrection Man (1994) and The Blue Tango (2002).

The repercussions of the recent past are also evident in David Park’s latest novel Swallowing the Sun (2004). Park’s portrait of a working class Protestant family is full of the rich detail of his earlier work, but coupled with a quiet anger at the events that take over the lives of the Waring family.

Rachel, a brilliant young student, has her life cut short after an experiment with Ecstasy proves fatal. Her father Martin works at the Ulster Museum, but the care and dedication he devotes to the ancient material isn’t reciprocated at home. His wife is consumed with anger and their other child becomes reclusive and violent.

Park documents the eroding nature of grief in the lives of ordinary people, and the clumsy means they use in the struggle to make sense of the unexpected events around them. Rachel’s death and the criminal underbelly it exposes comes as a revelation to this quiet suburban family, but the novel is not without moments of humour and beauty, often provided by Park’s gift for describing the incidental details of everyday family life.

Different in tone and setting but sharing similar themes, The Mermaid’s Child (2004) is the second novel from Belfast based Jo Baker. Growing up in an isolated community, Malin Reed feels herself to be different from other people. Her sense of dislocation is reinforced by her father’s stories about her absent mother, a woman he claims was actually a mermaid, much to Malin’s horror.

After his death Malin begins a journey to uncover the dark roots of her past, hoping to differentiate between the truth and the eccentric stories she grew up with. As the novel progresses Malin begins to understand the reality she was presented with at birth and fashion a new identity for herself. It’s a clear, lucid and intelligent book, packed with vivid characters and detail.

These five novels are diverse and stimulating, and signal a generation of writers intent on exploring difficult terrain with candour, commitment and style. Clearly, the fall-out from conflict is an important theme, as are the new realities that have to be faced in the wake of major change. Each one is distinctive, vibrant and a welcome sign that Northern Irish fiction remains in a formidable state.

Gavin Carville