A year ago I reviewed Louise Kennedy’s The End of the World is a Cul de Sac which taxed my usual picking of favourites short story review tactic because, without exception, they were all excellent. I was delighted, then, when her first novel, Trespasses, popped through my letter box. Set in early ‘70s County Down against the backdrop of the Troubles, it meshes the political with the personal through the story of a young Catholic teacher who becomes involved with a Protestant barrister.
It was one thing to drink in a Catholic-owned bar; quite another to have your pint pulled by a woman smeared in papish warpaint
Cushla is working one of her regular shifts in the family pub when she first encounters Michael Agnew, steadily meeting his gaze in the mirror above the bar. Her brother, Eamonn, has taken on the running of the place since their father died, carefully distancing himself from his mainly Protestant regulars include cap-wearing Fidel, a member of the Ulster Defence Association, and a handful of soldiers who like to eye Cushla up. She teaches at the local Catholic primary school where her class begins each day with a roundup of the news increasingly dominated by bombs and beatings, her eye on Davy McGeown, the bright young son of a mixed marriage, shunned by his schoolmates. Cushla’s attempts to help when Davy’s father is beaten and left for dead backfire in this town where every act is political whether intended or not. Michael’s requests for Cushla to give Irish lessons to him and his friends usher her into the world of the comfortably off, educated Protestant middle class while paving the way to the affair which will prove as complicated as the tangled web of sectarianism the country is caught up in.
Something twisted in her. While she was looking at the pictures on his walls he was washing her off him. Making himself presentable for his wife.
Kennedy explores the Troubles through a tender love story which echoes the divisions running through Northern Irish society, setting her story in County Down where she grew up. The complications of those divisions permeate every aspect of the novel, from Eamonn’s careful treatment of his customers to the McGeowns’ mixed marriage, seen as a provocation by both Catholics and Protestants. This is the era of the Diplock Courts: three judges and no jury passing judgement on those accused of sectarian atrocities; punishment beatings and car bombs; internment and the British Army on the streets. Small acts of kindness are twisted and misinterpreted resulting in unintended consequences. What may appear black and white is often myriad shades of grey. Kennedy handles her themes with compassion and empathy. She bookends her novel with two short sections set in the twenty-first century, a technique that can sometimes backfire, feeling tacked on rather than properly knitted in, but not in this case. A poignant, deeply moving novel, but not one that was easy to write, I’m sure.
Bloomsbury Books: London 9781526623324 320 pages Hardback