Book Review: The Fire Starters

“This is a power worth believing in. I’m not at all sad for Ella Penney. I’m sad for her parents who do not understand what they’ve been given. Who may well miss the most glorious part of her.”

The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson, is a tale of two fathers struggling to gain control of events surrounding their offspring. Set in contemporary East Belfast during an unusually long, hot summer it perfectly captures the voice, quirks and insular concerns of the local community. There is a dash of magical realism that may be read as possibility or metaphor. It all adds depth to a tale of parental concerns for children, who insist on developing as individuals despite best efforts to mould them as approved.

Dr Jonathan Murray is a single parent caring for his newborn daughter, Sophie. Having been raised in the knowledge that his own parents had never planned to have a child, and then been left behind as a teenager when they emigrated to New Zealand, he has few pointers to good parenting other than practical knowledge gained from his profession.

Jonathan has little positive experience of any close relationship. The few friendships he formed whilst at university bore little resemblance to those depicted on American television. The time spent with Sophie’s mother has left him afraid of the power their child may unleash as she develops.

Forced to return to work in order to pay the bills, Jonathan hires a nanny. He takes what precautions he can to protect his child from outside influences but believes that, longer term, more drastic measures will be necessary to keep the rest of the world safe from Sophie.

Sammy Agnew has a violent and bloody past that he put behind him when he and his wife had their children. Two have now flown the nest but the eldest, Mark, still lives a nocturnal existence in the attic upstairs. When local politicians decide to limit the height of the loyalist community’s July bonfires – citing health and safety – there are calls for protest in the form of widespread arson attacks. Sammy fears that Mark may have inherited the anger he himself, at times, can barely suppress and become involved in events that could lead to tragedy.

Growing ever more despairing, Sammy seeks help from his doctor and thereby meets Jonathan. Dr Murray has also recently been consulted by the mother of a child born with wings but who cannot fly. Even in this small corner of the city he discovers there are numerous parents struggling to deal with children whose particular gifts, characteristics and behaviours cause them issues. They do not fit within what society is willing to accept. Despite this, Jonathan still regards Sophie as a special case. He advises Sammy to act for the wider good. The tension ratchets up as the reader realises how Jonathan plans to follow similar advice in dealing with Sophie.

The author has a knack for capturing the nuances of everyday conversation and activity. Jonathan’s interactions with the lady receptionists at his GP practice are a delight. His discomfort in any company is astutely portrayed. Sammy and his wife offer a picture of a long married couple who quietly coexist whilst longing for their past selves. Every character, major and minor, adds to the humour and pathos redolent of this still troubled city.

There have been a number of novels published recently offering windows into life in Belfast – the experience and legacy of The Troubles. Those that I have read focused on areas to the west of the city. The Fire Starters captures the idiosyncrasies of people living to the East – from the narrow inner city terraces to the more affluent Castlereagh Hills. The resentments and aspirations emanating from these streets are evoked with unstinting authenticity.

A delicious and layered tale written with a refreshing lightness that complements its originality and wit. Playful yet piercing, this was a joy to read.

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

Book Review: Sweet Home

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine.

Sweet Home is a collection of ten short stories that prove what powerful tales can be told in this condensed format. All are set in and around contemporary East Belfast. They feature ordinary people as their quiet disappointments and resentments bubble to the surface of their everyday lives. The author captures the quotidian with insight and poignancy along with each character’s yearning for what they perceive to be passing them by. There is a depth of understanding, a recognition that most hurts go unnoticed as individuals deal with their own demons and desires.

The collection opens with To All Their Dues which is told from three points of view. A young woman is trying to establish her new small business; a thug is demanding protection money but fears for the future of his nefarious income; his wife is trying to find a way to cope with her familial past. The way these three flawed lives are presented, with understanding but also clear sighted portrayal of limitations and worst behaviours, demonstrates the wit and skill with which the author writes.

Inakeen is an searingly honest depiction of a mother and son whose lives and aspirations are of little real interest to the other. The son visits his mother out of duty, not understanding how dull she finds his conversation. He does not notice her growing interest in her new neighbours, and how she feels let down by his inability to maintain relationships. While he is bitterly resentful that his former partner left him, his mother misses the younger woman’s company and that of her grandchild. She imagines the enjoyment her new neighbours – three women, one dressed in a burqa – have living together. Without knowing them, she longs to join in.

Observation looks at two families whose teenage daughters are best friends. Lauren is drawn to her mother’s new boyfriend. Cath is intrigued by a family setup so different from her own. Cath’s parents talk of Lauren’s mother in less than flattering terms. There is an undercurrent of denial in how much each character knows about what is going on, and in what is being said.

Locksmiths introduces a young woman raised by her grandmother after her mother was sent to prison. The grandmother is now dead and the mother due for release. The reader is offered views of each of these women through the others’ eyes. Little is flattering.

The titular story is a tale of two couples: a man who returns to Belfast with his English wife, both having established successful careers; the other couple younger and more ordinary, who are employed as gardener and cleaner. The latter pair have a child who becomes the focus of the returned man’s interest. None of these adults are content with their current situation and, to a degree, blame their partners.

Last Supper is set in a coffee shop run on a charitable basis. This skews the terms under which staff and customers operate. Daily tasks are carried out but the success of the enterprise is compromised by limitations imposed by the benefactors. The manager does his best to deal fairly with unrealistic expectations built on crumbling foundations.

Arab States: Mind and Narrative features a middle aged woman who allows her lingering regret at a choice made while at university to distort her current reasoning. She imagines that an old acquaintance, who has written a book, will still be interested in her. She wishes to bask in his reflected success. She tries to remake herself as the intelligent conversationalist she thinks he regarded her as back in the day. She is blind to her current self, which is all others see.

Lady and Dog tells the story of a teacher whose life changed when, as a teenager, her lover was killed. As she approaches retirement she becomes obsessed by a young man who teaches sport to her pupils. The denouement is horrific in ways that made me question why certain deaths shock more than others.

77 Pop Facts You Didn’t Know About Gil Courtney is a list, as described in the title, telling the life story of an almost famous musician. The structure is fun, clever but with a depth of sadness. Growing up on the Cregagh estate, Gil’s father would have preferred his son to take the expected factory job at Mackies. Gil’s exceptional musical abilities as a child were nurtured but these did not lead to long term happiness. The rock and roll lifestyle requires financial resources, the accumulation of which requires business acumen. It is interesting to reflect on the cost of fame and benefits of accepting a more ordinary life.

The Soul has no skin is a shattering tale of a young boy whose life is irreparably denuded by an act of kindness. Barry lives an austere and often lonely life, choosing to eschew ambition and exist below society’s radar. He has experience of being noticed and the scars this created run deep.

No mere summary of these plots can do justice to what is special about the writing. The author gets under the skin of what it means to live in a world striving to offer something better than that which an individual already has. This desire for better, rather than taking pleasure in the here and now, leads to restlessness and a blaming of others. Yet the tales are poignant rather than depressing, understanding more than recriminating. The use of language and fragile intensity make them alluring and satisfying to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Stinging Fly Press.

Book Review: Dark Chapter

Dark Chapter, by Winnie M Li, is the story of a rape. Told from the points of view of both the victim and the perpetrator, the subject matter has been informed by an assault the author suffered which changed the course of her life. The narrative is detailed, stark and harrowing. The portrayal of a sordid lifestyle within the Irish Traveller community withering.

Vivian Tan is a Taiwanese-American living in London. A Harvard graduate, she works for a film production company in the city. Her work is demanding but enables her to live in a flat share overlooking the river. She enjoys socialising with her many friends; travelling both for business and pleasure. Often she will take the opportunity of visiting a new country to hike alone and discover quiet places where she may admire natural vistas. She enjoys the challenge and feeling of accomplishment that comes from being independent.

On a trip to Belfast Vivian sets out on a hike from the west of the city towards Cave Hill. A young Irish Traveller, Jonny, spots her on the trail and decides he will have sex with her. His rough upbringing, where domestic assault was routine and casual theft expected, has led him to consider good looking girls fair game. He boasts to his friends of his conquests, feeling no shame that his victims were forced, often violently, to accept attentions that satisfy the cravings he feeds with pornography, first offered to him at a young age.

The timeline jumps back and forth between the protagonists’ childhoods, the attack, and the aftermath. The writing is precise and measured with no shirking from graphic detail. Jonny is shown to be incapable of understanding how his victims are feeling. Vivian is shattered by her experience and by the painful process of seeking what passes for justice when she refuses to quietly shoulder her ordeal.

This is a powerful account of a crime that is too often maligned and misunderstood. For this alone it could be regarded as an important work. In deriving empathy for the unremitting and ongoing horror it can also, in places, overwhelm. The bitter undercurrent and raw pain, although understandable, are challenging to read.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Legend Press.

 

Dark Chapter has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.

Book Review: Postcard Stories

Postcard Stories, by Jan Carson (with illustrations by Benjamin Phillips), is a collection of fifty-two short stories, one for each week of a year. They were originally written on the back of postcards and then mailed individually to the author’s friends. Set in or around contemporary Belfast they capture the attitudes and vernacular of their subjects with wit and precision. As with Carson’s previous work, there is at times an injection of magical realism which beautifully offsets the dry humour of her candid observations.

To tell a story as short as these the prose must throughout remain pithy. The author presents the quirks and poignancy of little moments in everyday life with warmth and affection. These small snapshots of the ordinary become extraordinary when painted with her words.

The stories in which elderly people feature offer a wry yet sympathetic account of life from their perspectives. All the characters are recognisable, their foibles presented with gentle perceptiveness.

From Ulster Hall Belfast (Week 34), where the narrator is mourning her increasing forgetfulness:

“There was not even a way to say that I had forgotten these things; only a jumble of words too long or too short for the job and a clenching of fists when the words would not come.”

From Armagh (Week 8)

“A provincial Northern Irish library, early evening, and the usual suspects have gathered for a creative writing workshop: two amateur poets, a sci-fi guy in a black t-shirt, a lady who writes letters to her sister in Australia, and that one elderly gentleman who’s working on a biography of someone you’ve never heard of.”

Writers feature as many of the stories appear personal.

From Whiteabbey (Week 9), which tells of a gathering of friends:

“Three writers and a much more useful person gathered for a dinner party. They ate aubergines and couscous impregnated with tequila. Like Jesus, they kept the good wine for pudding. Later, they ended their evening with Bob Dylan and cheese so ripe it might have been shoes.”

From Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 29), where the author talks of making a robot of herself:

“The robot of me will not be funny or write stories or be good at conversation with wine. I will be particularly careful to ensure the robot is a dull dinner party guest for fear that my friends might begin to prefer its company over mine.”

One of my favourite tales in the collection was Albertbridge Road, Belfast (Week 27). It starts:

“The Tall Ships arrived in Belfast yesterday. They were not as tall as we’d been led to believe. We thought you might be able to see them from space or, at the very least, Cave Hill.”

Another I particularly enjoyed was Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 50) where the narrator ponders bible stories and the characters who do not feature:

“which made me think of the shepherd who went off for a quick wee at exactly the wrong angelic moment, and all the people who, upon hearing there was only one portion of loaves and fish to split between so many, went home to fix their own sandwiches”

Both of these feature a last line so perfect I had to stop to savour the effect before rereading from the beginning. The length of each story allows for this. In many ways they are akin to poetry.

There are tales that play with word meanings: a consideration of happiness prompted by a sign in a coffee shop; a museum as a place to take the old things that remind the narrator of events they would prefer to forget. There are stories which deal with meetings and misunderstandings, arrivals and departures, loneliness and the throwaway comments that lodge in memory, endlessly chewed over yet remaining difficult to swallow.

The collection is ideal for dipping into. It is an attractively presented, slim volume with illustrative sketches for a number of the tales. Perfect for slipping into a bag or a pocket, this is a sagacious and entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Emma Press.

Book Review: Vinny’s Wilderness

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Vinny’s Wilderness, by Janet Shepperson, explores the lasting impact of school exams, especially on those deemed failures at a young age. Set in Belfast, where the continuing prevalence of grammar schools requires that ten year olds are groomed to sit selection tests in order to gain entry to the ‘good’ schools, it introduces us to two very different families.

Vinny is a single mother, a divorced teacher raising her daughter in the least sectarian area of the city she can afford. Alex is a stay at home mum of three, the wife of a wealthy doctor living in a large property off the moneyed Malone Road. She employs Vinny to tutor her youngest child for the transfer test, still commonly called the eleven plus, as he is struggling to grasp the concepts required to gain the sought after A/B grade.

Vinny’s home is small and untidy, her garden wild and overgrown, a haven for children’s play and imagination. She has taken on the tutoring to raise money to take her daughter, Roisin, on a summer holiday. Roisin is on the cusp of adolescence, an intelligent child who will not have to sit the transfer test as she is to attend one of the few integrated schools which cater for all abilities as well as both sides of the sectarian divide.

Alex’s home is as perfectly toned and groomed as its mistress. Both have featured in the glossy Interiors magazines that grace a polished coffee table. The glazed sun room is devoid of a single fingerprint, smudge or blemish. Even the garden is manicured to within an inch of its life. Alex’s elder two children are heading towards the successful careers expected in such a family. Her younger son, Denzil, is the anomaly, a dreamy child who relishes creativity and the great outdoors. His father blames Alex for what he regards as his son’s failings, pointing out that she attained a mere C in her eleven plus.

In a society where each person’s perceived intelligence may be judged by the school they attended from age eleven, exams take on a stratospheric importance to aspirational parents. Alex may have attended the school for those expected to be failures in life but she subsequently reinvented herself as a supportive, trophy wife, essential to the smooth management of her accomplished husband’s immaculate home. Vinny, who passed her eleven plus and thereby attended a coveted grammar school, became a teacher but was apparently less successful when it came to her personal life.

Vinny has, however, been happier since her divorce. She is now able to relax in a home that welcomes her children’s friends, never worrying about muddy footprints, creative mess, or the timing, style and contents of an evening meal. In contrast Alex appears brittle and on edge as she scurries too and fro trying to fit her home and children into her husband’s precise mould.

As Alex and Vinny grow closer they learn of each other’s pasts and start to influence their futures. Vinny’s comfortable chaos is threatened, Alex’s ordered life develops cracks.

As a native of Belfast I relished the memories so poignantly evoked. The author has captured the vernacular as well as the attitudes of a place where a portion of the population fights to remain a part of a kingdom whose laws it rejects, while others prioritise wider family over home. I enjoyed the small part played by the German lady whose pithy comments on the education system, and on grown men who spend too much time with their mothers, offered humorous truths to be pondered.

This is a tale of friendship, motherhood, and the importance of substance in a life judged by wrappings. It invites the reader to reflect on the weight given to homogenisation in education, leading to the segregation of those who do not fit and subsequent outcomes that affect all. It is a reminder that intelligence, academic and emotional, is more than providing prescribed answers in a child’s test.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Liberties Press.

A City Break in Belfast

I was born and raised in Belfast during the height of The Troubles. When I left in 1988, at the age of twenty-four, it seemed that the ingrained prejudices ran too deep and there could never be peace. The Good Friday agreement was announced a decade later and I questioned if it would hold. How delighted I have been to see the city of my birth emerge from the rubble and ashes of conflict to become a place worth visiting for its history, culture and for the welcome given to visitors by its people.

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For my most recent stay, my husband and I checked into the Europa Hotel which is located in Great Victoria Street in the heart of the city. We flew into the International Airport and caught a bus which drops passengers at a terminus just behind this hotel.

Check in was swift and we soon found ourselves in a small but comfortable bedroom, impressively insulated from the sounds of the nightlife below.

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Of course, we had to sample a little of what was on offer. We enjoyed cocktails in the hotel’s Piano Bar, and then crossed the street to the iconic Crown Bar where we were lucky enough to find an empty booth within which to enjoy a carefully pulled pint of Guinness.

Over the course of our three night stay we ate out at a variety of restaurants: Flame in Howard Street, Deanes Deli Bistro in Bedford Street, and Villa Italia in University Road. In all three the food and ambiance were excellent. The attention to detail in the eclectic decor at Flame and Deanes especially appealed to me. Villa Italia was perfect for the evening my parents joined us.

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During the day we were tourists, visiting just a few of the many attractions now available within walking distance of our hotel. For us, the most interesting of these was the Crumlin Road Gaol. Our tour guide was informative and entertaining. My husband was particularly amused by the fact that the official opening of this facility as a visitor attraction was conducted by the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, both of whom are ex-residents. We learned that many famous names have done time behind these walls.

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With working class family connections to the linen industry and the shipyard I was keen to visit Titanic Belfast. This attraction was very busy and tells a story I am familiar with but was worth the time just to stand alongside the fabulous building in which it is housed.

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As a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast  I was also eager to wander around the University Quarter and explore the changes that have been made to my alma mater over the years. There were many impressive, new additions to admire but I was pleased to once again stand before an unchanged Lanyon building.

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And finally I got to visit the Linen Hall Library. We could not fit the tour into our schedule so instead enjoyed a short stroll around the stacks. The gallery located in the back stairway was a highlight, as were our brief chats with the informative librarians.

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Ireland may have a reputation for being a tad soggy but the weather was kind to us throughout our stay enabling us to wander at will and enjoy the many changes. New buildings have appeared and old ones unwrapped from their security blankets. It was lovely to see.

As we picked up our luggage, helpfully cared for by the hotel until we were ready to leave, the heavens opened. We bid Belfast a fond farewell and journeyed home bearing the gift requested by our teenagers. However popular artisan crisps may become, it is still hard to beat a bag of the best crisps & snacks in the world.

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When Truth Is More Frightening Than Fiction: Guest Post by Deirdre Quiery

 

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Today I am delighted to welcome Deirdre Quiery, the author of Eden Burning (which I review here), to my blog. Like me she grew up in Belfast during The Troubles. Unlike me she lived alongside the inaccurately named Peace Line at the heart of the escalating conflict. A wall dividing the communities still exists to this day. It is on the tourist trail for visitors to the city.

peace-wall

When considering the content for this guest post I asked Deidre if she could share her experiences of growing up in Belfast and how this inspired Eden Burning. I am both moved and humbled by the powerful piece she has provided. Thank you Deirdre. I hope that my readers feel as motivated by your concluding thoughts as I have been. 

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First of all a big thank you to Zeudytigre for reviewing Eden Burning on Amazon. I know how generous this is in time and thoughtfulness. Feedback is life blood for a writer. I am very grateful for your post and also for this opportunity to share how real life experiences growing up in Belfast during the 1970s influenced the writing of Eden Burning.

On reading Eden Burning, several people have looked at me with a shocked expression and asked,

“Did you experience anything like that or did you make it all up? How did you write those graphic brutal torture scenes?”

One of my teachers at school read it in one sitting. She sat up all night and told me that even though she lived in Belfast, she had no idea how bad it really had been.

I remember the summer of 1969. I was twelve years old, living in a house in North Belfast which was in a “mixed” area – Catholics and Protestants. My parents had bought the house before they married and like most people in the 1950s they bought the best quality furniture, put lacy curtains and pull down blinds with little tassels on the windows. My father built a little wall around the garden and made metal gates with scrolls. Every two years he would wallpaper and paint the house from top to bottom. My parents were always improving it – getting rid of the cockroaches with fine white power squeezed along the wood skirting.

A coal fire burned upstairs in my parents’ bedroom and another downstairs in the sitting room. If I was sick, I was allowed to lie in my parents’ bed and my Mother would light the fire. She told me that an old woman had died from pneumonia in that bed. During cold winter days, I would wonder whether I too would I get pneumonia and die. There were two bedrooms. I normally slept in the back one with my two sisters. We would screen cartoons with a toy projector onto the wall at night. I remember nothing sinister until the summer of 1969.

Then my parents started talking to one another at night in hushed voices which I wasn’t meant to hear. When Aunt Muriel came to visit, she was less discreet and talked openly about the rumours that people were setting up machine guns on a high area of waste land overlooking Ardoyne. She said that they were going to machine gun every street and that everyone could be killed. I remember having nightmares of planes flying over Belfast dropping bombs on the city and of seven tornados sweeping down the mountains destroying everything in their path. As a child I couldn’t understand why someone wouldn’t do something to stop it all. How could they let people die?

The British soldiers arrived in the summer of 1969. Everyone breathed a deep sigh of relief. I clearly remember that day. As we walked to 7.00 am Mass in Holy Cross Church, soldiers lay on the ground catching up on the sleep they had lost during the all-night rioting on the Crumlin Road. I had to step over the sleeping soldiers with their guns lying beside them like teddy bears. I stepped gently – like a cat placing its paws carefully between the spaces on a grill on the ground. These men were heroes. They had answered our prayers. They were here to save us. The world returned to a world of possibilities.

Two years later a gang of armed rioters walked up the street where we lived, shot through the windows of our house and told us that we had 24 hours to leave or we would each have a bullet with our names on it. The next morning we left with the cat, a radio and two suitcases. We slept on the floor of a school where someone made a communal barbeque in the playground and blankets appeared from nowhere. There were scouts out looking for houses which had been abandoned and we were told that they had found one for us to squat in on the Crumlin Road – the Peace Line. It was empty because the Doctor and his family who had lived there had the sense to leave.

We moved in to what was to become a sanctuary and a prison. The Crumlin Road was the duelling point for the warring sides. My father covered the front windows with chicken wire. He put a bar on the door to give us a minute to exit the house if anyone tried to break in. Two car bombs were placed outside the house and the IRA entered and held us hostage in an attic bedroom. A cousin was killed in the crossfire from that attack. Two Uncles were murdered. One died trying to save his son. His last words were “God save you son.” The son survived.

What made it more frightening than Eden Burning? Many things. Eden Burning takes place over two weeks and then there is reconciliation. I lived in that house until I went to University at Leeds, returning after each term until I was 22. That is eight years. Every day there was rioting, shooting, petrol bombs. The Good Friday Agreement Referendum which brought a kind of peace was only held in 1998. There were 30 years of war for people who continued to live there.

In addition inside the house there was no Tom, Lily or Rose. My parents constantly argued. I think that they never really got over losing their house and all their possessions. My father never fixed anything in the house on the Crumlin Road. He never wallpapered or painted. My sisters and I did that. There weren’t even carpets on the stairs. I would go to bed with my fingers in my ears to blot out the fury inside and to blot out the outside – the screams, cursing and rioting with its rhythm of crowd violence, petrol bombs and the unmistakable eerie silence that preceded the snipers.

People have asked me why my parents didn’t leave and take us somewhere safe. That’s another story. My mother was 16 when she was left alone to bring up her four brothers and sisters. The youngest brother was three. When we were growing up during “The Troubles” my mother said to me that she was growing up with us. That she had never grown up before. My father hadn’t grown up either. We sat around the table in 1971 and my parents asked us – the children – “What should we do?” I remember responding, “Stay here.” I needed the security of going to the same school and being with my best friend. That security outweighed the horror of living with extraordinary levels of violence. They say that you only need one significant other to survive a trauma – my best friend was that one significant other.

Some people may say that it is too extraordinary in Eden Burning to imagine such levels of forgiveness given the evil perpetrated. I would reply that some authors like to write Science Fiction or Fantasy or about Vampires or about 50 Shades of Grey. These themes seem quite extraordinary to me and I would prefer to explore the possibility of infinite forgiveness and unquenchable good in the most hardened hearts. If you can’t imagine it, even in a story, it can never happen. If you can dream it – there’s a possibility that it could come true.

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Eden Burning is published by Urbane Publications and is available to buy now.

Author Interview: Paul McVeigh

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There is no doubt in my mind that growing up in 1970s Belfast shaped the person I subsequently became. I remember the casual acceptance of body pat downs and bag searches by armed security personnel before being allowed to browse the aisles in Marks and Spencer; lying down on the seat of the 38 bus when I spotted the brick throwing teenagers by the gasworks on the lower Ormeau Road; standing behind a cordon on the city streets watching the wee robot role towards an illegallly parked van and wondering what its controlled explosion would trigger.

It wasn’t until I went up to the university that I visited the Ardoyne, where Paul McVeigh’s debut novel, The Good Son, is set. I found it a welcoming place, and drank tea with men I later learned were active members of the IRA. None of this phased me. What made me want to leave Belfast was the perpetuation of the bigotry amongst some of my peers. It is possible to accept views from the older generation, who young people rarely credit with much wit, but to see the same views being adopted by those I had regarded as capable of cogent thought was more than I could take.

In The Good Son we are introduced to Mickey Donnelly, an eleven year old boy whose everyday concerns about his Ma, fitting in, friends, and the prospect of a scary new school are more on his mind than the bombs, British army raids and shootings that happen all around. I recognised that boy and I cared about him. I wanted him to have the chances in life that he deserved, despite the damaged world which the adults tasked with his care were perpetuating.

I loved the book and the world that it brought to life through the eyes of a child (you can read my review here). I was therefore delighted when the author agreed to answer a few of my questions, to give us an insight into his work.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Paul McVeigh.

Where do you typically write?

I write in my bedroom. A little desk at the window. This is about to change. Fingers crossed I’ll have a writing room next week. I’ve never been able to write in cafes or trains, they’re too noisy and I’m too nosy.

Tell us about your writing process.

I have gestation periods where I work on ideas in my head for a long time. Then it’s all about making the time and getting on with putting it on the computer. Editing and rewriting is when you make an idea into a story.

Tell us about your publishing experience.

I had some stories published in journals and anthologies. Now my novel is out there.

In what ways do you promote your work?

Readings at festivals and events – when lucky enough to be invited. On social media. By doing this!

What are some of your current projects?

At the Cork Short Story Festival this week. I get to chair an event with one of my favourite writers Claire Keegan. Then I go to a short story festival in Wroclaw, Poland. I’m working on a idea but it’s not quite right yet. And I keep getting distracted by life, things like paying the bills and spending time with people I love.

Where can my readers find you?

Twitter: Paul McVeigh (@paul_mc_veigh)

The Good Son blog: The Good Son | Paul McVeigh

Blog for writers: Paul McVeigh

Facebook: Paul McVeigh | Facebook

Born in Belfast, Paul McVeigh began his writing career as a playwright. He moved to London where he wrote comedy shows, which were performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in London’s West End. His writing career moved into print, writing short stories that have been published in literary journals and anthologies, read on BBC Radio 5 and commissioned by BBC Radio 4.

He is the founding Director of London Short Story Festival and Associate Director at Word Factory, the UK’s leading short story salon. ‘The Good Son’ is his first novel, about a young boy growing up in Belfast during The Troubles, and has been called ‘a work of genius’ by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler. The Good Son is currently shortlisted for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize’.

Paul’s blog for writers which posts on submission opportunities for journals and competitions gets 40,000 hits a month internationally.

 

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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.