The Good Son, by Paul McVeigh, tells the story of eleven year old Mickey Donnelly, who lives in Belfast’s troubled Ardoyne but has problems in his life far greater than those caused by sectarian violence. Mickey is different from the other kids and they make is life miserable because of it. He dreams of going to America and living the life he sees on TV. Hemmed in as he is by the segregated schools and housing, the peace lines and death threats, he cannot travel beyond his few home streets.
When the book opens Mickey is looking forward to escaping his local primary school and the misery daily life there entails. He has been offered a place at a grammar school where he hopes he can make a fresh start, find friends and fit in with those who are more like him. Few from his area ever pass the selection tests. When his parents turn up at his school, dressed in their Sunday best, he thinks that somebody must have died. The news they give him is far worse.
Mickey’s Da is a drunk without a job. Mickey hates him for making his beloved Ma’s life so hard. She and his eldest sister work but there is never enough money. Mickey does what he can to be a good son, but his natural exuberance and dreamy nature are a liability. He is expected to grow up and conform.
The story unfolds over the course of the long summer holiday before Mickey starts at his new school. He wants to play with his wee sister, Maggie, but she is itching to join in with the other girls in their street. Mickey would be happy to play with them too, but boys and girls their age rarely mix. When he tries he is mocked and derided.
The background to their lives involves riots and shootings, bombings and random house searches. Helicopters fly overhead and security forces patrol the streets. Mickey knows not to watch too closely and to turn his back when incidents happen. There are some things it is better not to know, especially those which involve his older brother, Paddy.
The violence and poverty are just a part of Mickey’s life. What worries him more is his difference and how to cope with his peers. The author has captured the difficulties faced by a child of this age with a realism that made my heart ache.
There is much humour beside the pathos. Mickey has an infectious energy and optimism despite the wasteland where he resides. He is easily distracted, creating trouble for himself, then dreaming up schemes to undo the damage he has wrought.
I feared where the denouement was going, but this story is about the journey. The author skillfully portrays life in Ardoyne at this difficult time, a tale of a boyhood that he captures perfectly. Mickey Donnelly is a character it would be hard not to care for. He is one I will not readily forget.