Book Review: The Good Son

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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.

 

Book Review: Eden Burning

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Eden Burning, by Deirdre Quiery, is set in early 1970’s Belfast, and brought home many memories. I was raised in the city in this troubled time, although not around the inaccurately named peace line. My home was in a newly built suburb on the opposite side of town. From the Castlereagh Hills I could look down over the city and see the Cave Hills beyond. I would hear the deep boom of the bombs but knew only a few who were injured or killed. It wasn’t until I went up to the university that I met those from the ‘other side’.

After my first trip into the Ardoyne, where much of this book is set, I was phoned by a friend and warned that the security forces had noted the presence of my car. I ignored their advice to stay away. I wanted to understand why we were required to live apart.

Eden Burning takes the reader into the heart of this conflict and, by introducing the reader to two families on either side of the sectarian divide, goes some way to explaining the background to the personal vendettas which fueled the bloodshed for so many years. The hatred was bred into the children as they grew. With large numbers of schools and residential areas still segregated by religion, too many still feel this way today.

The protestant family in the book has William McManus as its patriarch. He remembers the Easter Rising, the introduction of Home Rule, and the Republic of Ireland being granted full independence from Britain:

“it was one of the darkest days of William’s life. William felt that he had lost something. Something had been stolen from him which was a warning of worse to come.”

William and his elder son, Cedric, fight for God and Ulster. In the late 1960’s they burned Catholics out of their homes. They pick up random Catholics in their black taxi and murder them, deriving pleasure from watching them die. With the help of another man, Sammy P, they plant car bombs to breed fear, to damage and kill.

William’s wife, Eileen, does not question where her husband and son go or what they do. Her younger son, Peter, is still at school and has dreams of being a doctor. His father wishes him to join the family firm.

The Catholic family is headed by Tom who grew up in the Great Depression. He recalls scouring the pavements for dropped coins that his family may buy food. His father had his mother locked away in the Purdysburn mental hospital, quickly remarrying when she died. Tom treasures his memories of his mother, embracing her willingness to forgive.

Tom married Lily but they were not blessed with children. After his sister Catherine’s death they cared for her daughter, Maria, and then later for Maria’s daughter, Rose. Tom, Lily and Rose were burned out of their home on Glenbryn Park near the Ardoyne so took a house on the Crumlin Road opposite their church. Rose falls asleep at night to the sounds of riots in the street outside. She is secretly friends with a British soldier, and goes to school with Clara whose father, Ciaran, is a killer for the IRA.

As the story opens we learn that Cedric and William plan to murder Rose. Tom has gone to the priest to ask for a gun that he may protect his family. What unfolds is how each of the characters got to this point, and what happens next.

There are vivid descriptions of the mindsets of the time. The undercurrent of hatred that William and Cedric carry for all Catholics is well evoked. Alongside the violence, destruction and random bloodshed on both sides of the divide are descriptions of everyday life. Whatever else is going on the families offer welcoming cups of tea, soda bread, tidy homes and concern for their loved ones. Breakfasts are cooked and pints drunk in the pub.

One scene that felt eerily familiar occurred when Cedric asked the barmaid, Jenny, out for dinner. Almost as soon as they arrive at their destination Jenny wonders why she agreed to come:

“Jenny smiled weakly, feeling slightly uncomfortable and not knowing why. Maybe it was because Cedric seemed to not so much smile at her but rather to leer at her. His voice was unusually sugary sweet. She began to wish she hadn’t said yes to this date.”

I have been on that date with that man, only my experience was with someone from the other side. As well as taking me to dinner he took me to a party and proudly introduced me to his friends in the IRA. I was not impressed.

Perhaps I should not be reviewing a book that feels so close to my own experiences as it will inevitably colour my views. However, this is a story about people and place, written to draw the reader in whatever their own lives may be. I can confirm that what is written feels real, terrifyingly so.

Perhaps because it is so close to home I did not feel satisfied by the denouement; it was the only part of the book that I could not empathise with. I enjoyed the twists and turns which drew these two families together, but found it hard to believe that such embedded hatred could be so quickly diffused.

I left Belfast because I could not bear to live with the attitudes lurking beneath the surface of so many otherwise lovely people. I could never understand how the hating could be done in a God of love’s name.

For those who are curious about The Troubles this book is an interesting read. It is also a fine and well written story. Any conflict requires the support of ordinary people. In this tale they are brought vividly to life.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane Publications.