So It Is
A Scot's take on Northern Ireland's troubled past shows early promise, but 'feels like a wasted opportunity'
I didn't grow up in Northern Ireland, but as a self confessed Troubles junkie I have read, watched and heard far more than is really healthy about life in the north of Ireland in the 1980s.
This I feel I have in common with Scottish author Liam Murray Bell – who studied creative writing at Queen's University – and the imagined Belfast of his debut novel, So It Is.
As a fellow outsider I recognise some of Bell's fascination for detail in his constructed community, but also wonder as to its authenticity. Think of the Martin family home in Graham Reid's Billy plays updated by a decade and turned Catholic and you will have a sense of the Brennan house where the action unfolds in Bell's brave new world.
It is not only the setting that has a strangely comforting sense of conflict history about it. We are also presented with a Mammy character rendered speechless with guilt at the thought of her loose lips having sealed the fate of a young bomb-making neighbour shot dead by the British Army. Then there is the ubiquitous alcoholic father figure to worry about.
In a further echo of those Billy plays, it is left to our young heroine, Aoife, to steer her young brother through these troubled waters and sacrifice her own education and likely prospects in the process.
Throw in a developing relationship with a friend's elder brother – who Aoife attempts to dissuade from joining the IRA – and we soon develop a sense that our heroine is already doomed.
If this all sounds a little cliched then yes, it probably is, but there are real glimpses of a unique literary voice emerging in the first part of the book. Aoife's story is constructed in a genuinely engaging fashion, and Bell uses our present peace time context to examine the impact of all that has gone before.
The interwoven narrative of a contemporary character who seeks to bring some retribution to bear upon those figures that live amongst us still in Northern Ireland – those with plenty of secrets and lies in their closets – interestingly seems to offer some catharsis to our villains in their attempts to deal with their own past.
But, despite some early promise, unfortunately Bell does not offer anything in the way of a fresh or challenging perspective when it comes to presenting a way forward for victims and their attackers, and the novel ultimately takes a tabloid turn into fairly prurient territory in its second and final section. This detour into body horror and sexually based violence would warrant an 18 rating in the cinema, but is barely hinted at on the back cover of the novel.
To this reader at least, it feels like a wasted opportunity. The early lyrical promise dissipates, and what was a reflective, keenly observed narratives morphs into a straight thriller, and an outlandish one at that, which further underlines the contrast with the gritty realism that the first section presents.
Any hopes that So It Is might provide a meditation on the legacy of the Northern Irish conflict on a damaged generation are not fulfilled, and no suggestions are offered as to ways forward in our post-conflict world where the words 'shared future' dominate the political agenda.
In fairness, that may never have been Bell's intention, and there is enough promise in this debut to make me look forward to his next book. Whether or not Bell can sustain that lyrical style next time, and resist the temptation to take a populist, frustratingly shallow turn, is yet to be seen.
So It Is is out now, published by Myriad Editions.