Tag Archives: the Troubles

Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty: Pay attention…

Cover imageHistory, family and otherwise, is woven through the fabric of this accomplished first novel which seems appropriate given that Neil Hegarty’s previous books deal with the subject. Set in Derry against the background of the Troubles, Inch Levels is about a young man with only a few weeks to live, wrestling with a dilemma and the tortured family history that has led him to it.

Barely into his thirties, Patrick Jackson has been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. He lies in his hospital bed listening to the ringing of the bell in the nearby school where he taught, trying to stave off his pain with memories. He has much to contemplate, his reverie interrupted by the visitors he doesn’t want to see, the sometimes patronising attentions of the nurses he would rather not have to endure. Each day his mother, Sarah, or his sister, Margaret, come to visit him but it’s only Margaret who’s welcome. Patrick’s reflections are studded with vivid memories – a day with his family at the beach; a march in his hometown of Derry which ended in bloodshed; the loving attentions of Cassie the only person Sarah seemed able to trust – but the memory which haunts him is not his own: the events leading to the death of an eleven-year-old girl one autumn day in 1983. As Patrick’s recollections unfold they reveal a family whose emotions have been smothered: a mother closed off, unable to express affection; a father doing the best he can but unable to compensate and two children, confused and resentful but knowing that each is all the other has.

Hegarty’s writing is often striking, particularly when describing the natural world: ‘the landscape was a palette of greens, changing with height into the deeper green-brown of bracken, purple of heather, hard silver glint of scree-strewn slopes’ vividly summons up an Irish hillside. It’s a novel which shows rather than tells, repaying close attention. Piece by piece Hegarty slowly reveals what has led Sarah into her emotional vacuum and the consequences it has had. Written in the main from Patrick’s point of view, the narrative smoothly shifts from character to character, answering questions but often prompting more. It’s adroitly done: so much is left unsaid in this family haunted by events that only one of them understands. Quietly impressive and wholly engrossing, Inch Levels is a fine debut which gently leads its readers to a resolution entirely in keeping with what’s gone before.

Siren by Annemarie Neary: The past is a foreign country

Cover imageI’m not a thriller kind of gal – well only the televised kind, usually with a Scandiland backdrop – but the setting of Annemarie Neary’s debut and the fact that I was still hauling myself out of my flu-induced reading slump before going on holiday made me reach for it. It’s the story of Róisín, brought face to face with the past she’s been trying to bury for more than twenty years when she sees the man who dragged her into the Troubles in Belfast looking set to become leader of his political party.

Siren opens with the incident that will set the seal on the rest of Róisín’s life: the murder of a soldier – a ‘legitimate target’ in Lonergan’s parlance – who she has unwittingly helped to lure into a trap. Mousey and shy, Róisín is flattered when she’s picked out by the brash, sophisticated new girl in her class who invites her on a night out, unaware that she’s being used. When Dolores’ face appears as a photofit on the front pages of the newspapers after the atrocity, Róisín is terrified that she’ll be identified too but no one remembers the nondescript friend dancing at the discotheque. Soon Lonergan comes calling, demanding another job but this time offering a way out once it’s done. Before she makes her escape, Róisín is witness to another atrocity and it is in the hope of doing justice for this that she takes herself off to Lamb Island, decades later, where Lonergan has a house from which he conducts his dodgy business dealings. An ill-judged, drunken email sent late one night before she left New York has alerted him to her plans and there’s a reception committee: Theo the Dutchman – all silky charm – and Boyle the creepy voyeur, only too willing to keep an eye on Róisín for Lonergan.

From its superbly dramatic opening, Siren had me in its grip. Neary takes her time revealing Róisín’s past, leaking small details into her narrative and occasionally bringing her readers up short. Róisín is cleverly drawn, her teenage naiveté making her the perfect prey for Lonergan, as is Boyle with his sinister references to the previous occupant of Róisín’s rented bungalow. Neary’s writing is sharp and clean, often vivid in its intensity, coupled with an astute psychological insight. When I was reading it I was reminded a little of Lionel Shriver’s Ordinary Decent Criminals, published long before We Need to Talk about Kevin brought her fame but, for me, a much better book. Obviously, Siren’s ending is out-of-bounds as far as this review’s concerned but it’s a satisfying one. Altogether a smart, stylish piece of writing – far pithier than either Attica Locke’s Pleasantville or S J Bolton’s Second Life, both recent ventures into thriller territory for me, and all the better for it. I’ll be interested to see what Neary comes up with next.

Ghost Moth by Michèle Forbes: A beautifully expressed debut

Cover imageOnly four books into the year and two have already aroused strong feelings. David Vann’s Dirt was not a happy experience nor, I’m sure, was it meant to be given that it’s a study in what happens when parents smother their children in controlling affection, but the final section in which the mother gets her comeuppance ground on and on until I felt like I’d been hit over the head. In contrast, Ghost Moth, Michèle Forbes’ exquisitely written debut, handles love, loss and silence with a delicate, nuanced touch.

Set in Northern Ireland, it opens in 1969 with the striking image of a woman transfixed with fear at the sudden appearance of a seal alongside her and her realisation that she’s swum far too far out to sea. The woman is Katherine Bedford and Ghost Moth is the story of her marriage told in alternating narratives, twenty years apart. In 1949 Katherine becomes engaged to George, an engineer who is also in the fire service, solid, reliable and deeply in love with her. Beautiful, with a fine singing voice, Katherine is playing Carmen in an amateur dramatics production. She and Tom, the tailor fitting her for her costume, embark on a passionate affair, beginning on the evening of Katherine’s engagement to George. As the novel unfolds, snapshots of Katherine’s affair alternate with scenes from married life with George and her four children until both strands are brought together in an understanding of how the silence surrounding the events of 1949 has permeated the marriage, becoming almost a third-party in it. All this may sound a little run of the mill domestic novel but it’s very much more than that. It’s also about the coming of the Troubles which ripped through Northern Ireland in the 1970s: the Bedfords are Catholics – George, a convert – living in Protestant Belfast, something which has its little difficulties in 1949 but is enough to get rotten eggs thrown at you in 1969, and far, far worse shortly after that. By playing events through the Bedfords’ lives at the very beginning of the violence rather than putting it centre stage, Forbes makes them all the more chilling in their prefiguring of what is to come.

From its striking opening sequence to its heartrending closing passage, Forbes’ novel is beautifully expressed, so accomplished that it’s hard to believe that it’s her first. She has a knack for arresting images – the seal of the opening sequence, the white ‘ghost moth’ collectors of dead souls, a lie sitting ‘like another presence in the room, expecting to be fed’ – and her use of language is often painterly: the sun makes the family ‘all look like their faces have been buttered’. Very early days, I know, but I would love to see this on a shortlist later in the year – Forbes has already won awards for her short stories. And if the name Michèle Forbes’ seems familiar you may know her from either TV or the stage where she’s been acting since 1983.