Book Review: Northern Irish Writing After The Troubles

northern irish writing

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The body is our tool for understanding our social world, and the texts in this study not only foreground the complex ways in which our bodies come into contact with others and are ‘read’ but also help us interpret the situations in which we find ourselves.”

Northern Irish Writing After the Troubles is an academic textbook. Its author, Caroline Magennis, is Reader in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature at the University of Salford. She wrote the book as part of Bloomsbury Academic’s ‘New Horizons in Contemporary Writing’ series. All this is to say that it is not a publication I would normally be drawn to read. It offers a detailed study and critique of contemporary fiction by writers from the North of Ireland focusing, as the strapline suggests, on intimacies, affects and pleasures. As an avid reader of Irish authors, and having reviewed books for close to a decade albeit as a hobbyist, I found her reading and interpretations of books I was familiar with fascinating and educative.

The introduction explains the author’s aims in writing the book, and her criteria in selecting the fiction featured.

“The texts in this project have been chosen because they speak to the central concerns of the monograph: how small moments of intimacy can be transformative. They begin to rewrite and reshape the representation of intimate life in Northern Ireland.”

The various stories, so carefully considered, were written around twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement. Although ‘post-conflict’, they reflect a community that continues to live in the shadow of decades of violence and societal repression. Northern Ireland’s politicians have ensured that the province retains outdated laws that limit and condemn certain choices and intimacies.

The first section of the book considers intimacy further.

“This chapter will argue that recent novels and short stories demonstrate the richness of intimacy as a way to re-examine the experiences of Northern Irish people in the twenty-first century.”

Texts studied include Michael Hughes’s Country, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters, Phil Harrison’s The First Day and Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies. I say studied. The author offers a close reading but this is not the dissection readers may recall from school English classes. Having read three of these books I was captivated by aspects of the stories that I had missed.

Wendy Erskine has stated,

“I want to write about people living their everyday lives, going to their jobs and doing their dishes or whatever but dealing with quite complex and profound sorts of issues.”

Magennis explores within each text concepts such as: home, family, desire and its relationship with violence. Northern Irish children are described as “unfortunate heirs of someone else’s spite”.

The second section of the book considers pleasure. Texts studied include Billy Cowan’s Still Ill, Glenn Patterson’s The Rest Just Follows, Lucy Caldwell’s Here We Are and Rosemary Jenkinson’s Wild Women.

“The focus will be on the depiction of pleasure, particularly sexual, to see whether these texts offer new ways of being an erotic subject in the changed political climate”

Appetites for pleasure face the restrictions and repression of ingrained moral conservatism. Opponents of change employ guilt and shame alongside the violence endemic in a patriarchal society.

It is noted that

“critics want literature to do things that politicians in Northern Ireland seem unable or unwilling to do”

In Northern Irish writing, “the expression of sexual freedom often comes at a cost”. Of course, there is hypocrisy, such as the Orange Order member who condemns prostitution yet visits brothels. Ian Paisley preached that the lusts of the flesh were sinful. One wonders at the quality of his personal life.

The third section, Skin, builds on aspects highlighted in previous chapters. Texts studied include David Park’s Gods and Angels, Rosemary Jenkinson’s Aphrodite’s Kiss, Bernie McGill’s Sleepwalkers, and Róisín O’Donnell’s Wild Quiet.

Jenkinson’s writing in particular appears explicitly erotic. She writes of female agency, of access to medical treatment, of loneliness. She gives voice to thoughts and actions traditionally shamed.

Anna Burns’ Milkman is given its own chapter, presenting as it does “the central themes that this study has been organised around: intimacy, touch and pleasure.”

“Burns examines the communal experience of shame, a public emotion which is particularly corrosive to self-esteem and which is monitored and policed by the community”

Living within a narrow neighbourhood where expressions of joy are regarded with suspicion, mental health issues intolerable (sufferers should catch themselves on), voicing of emotional states taboo.

Again, Ian Paisley preached that dancing was sinful, an opinion that has seeped through consciences resulting in what Jan Carson described as a tightness in her body, a constraint, that the Wee Sisters in Burns’ book had yet to inherit.

“To move your body out of pleasure is to assert that you think your body matters. That you matter. It is an assertion of pleasure, of pride and of autonomy.”

As someone born and raised in Northern Ireland this came across as radical – that women can matter in themselves.

The book is concluded with a short chapter titled Open Endings in which the author adds further context to the detailed yet always accessible study she has written. There is a reminder that more writers are producing work each year, and that younger writers will draw on different autobiographical elements when creating fiction, a progression from those who experienced life during the decades of sectarian violence. She voices an interest in the impact of The Troubles legacy across the next generation.

“As critics who have ‘skin in the game’, we must move away from centring the voices that we know and respond to because their experiences mirror our own and pay attention to the new writers who will reshape the cultural landscape”

A coda enables the authors whose work is featured to write of the intimacy, in its varied forms, that they included within their work.

I stated earlier that I found this study fascinating. Although detailed and academically rigorous it is not heavy. For those of us who indulge in careful consideration of the stories we choose to read it offers a lesson in how to do so better.

Any Cop?: With much fine writing currently emerging from Northern Ireland this is a companion work well worth looking out for when it becomes more economically available, as it will.

Jackie Law