Books: Northern Ireland through fiction

Last Thursday, from my safe Tory seat in rural Wiltshire, I voted with hope for a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. What the country got instead was Theresa May so desperate to cling on to power that she is trying to get into bed with Northern Ireland’s DUP. When I saw that my old homeland had returned MPs only from the two extremes of the sectarian divide my heart wept a little. That one of these parties should now have the means to influence UK decision making is a serious worry. The peace, such as it is, remains fragile and to help broker disputes Westminster is required to remain impartial.

Recent events in Manchester and London have triggered talk of a fear of terrorists amongst my English acquaintances. I remember how it was to grow up in The Troubles, with terrorist incidents an almost everyday occurrence. The British army wielded their guns on the streets of Belfast with intent. They drove around in their armoured vehicles as a warning and a threat. The local police routinely carried guns and had the power to hold suspects without explanation. Of course, the illegal organisations were well armed as well. They killed and they maimed with their bombs and their shootings, and when they took their fight to the mainland were paid attention.

In the past week that attention has returned. Questions are being asked about why Northern Ireland’s residents cannot vote for the same political parties as the rest of the UK. Questions are being asked about why they are not afforded the same choices and rights.

Much has changed since peace was agreed but religious inspired intolerance remains. There is the opposition to abortion and same sex marriage. There is also insistence on provocative marching that incites violence every year. Just as homes were set alight to drive out Catholics or Protestants back in the day, attacks are now aimed at immigrants. Although integration has improved there is still religious segregation in many areas, of housing and schools. It may no longer be necessary to subject shoppers to bag checks and body frisking before allowing access to the city centre but a few simple questions about background will still quickly reveal upbringing. Walls of all kinds remain.

Shankill Road peace wall

Fiction is a fine way to better understand cultural difference. For those interested, the following books offer windows into the lives of those living in the province. They are also excellent reads.

Children’s Children by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)
Vinny’s Wilderness by Janet Shepperson (Liberties Press)
Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell (Faber and Faber)
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (Salt Publishing)
Eden Burning by Deirdre Quiery (Urbane Publications)
Postcard Stories by Jan Carson (The Emma Press)

I have heard that The Glass Shore (New Island Books), which is a short story anthology by various Northern Irish women writers (edited by Sinéad Gleeson), is also excellent. I cannot verify how strong its sense of place is as I have yet to source a copy to review.

For all the negative attitudes being highlighted by the past week’s politics, Northern Ireland remains an attractive place to visit. Warm welcomes are the norm for those who are passing through and recent development has provided much to see and enjoy. It would be a tragedy if Theresa May’s legacy was to break the hard fought for peace that has enabled such progress. As on the mainland, movement should be forward towards tolerance and inclusivity. Adherance to any religious lifestyle should be a personal choice.

 

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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: Angel Bird

angelbird

Angel Bird, by Sanjida O’Connell, tells the story of Niall, a zooligist who travels to a remote town on the north east coast of Ireland to study the behaviour of magpies. Niall’s father and grandfather were also zooligists and he feels he needs to prove his worth. Niall believes that much of any creature’s behaviour is genetically ordained and lives his life accordingly. When being in Ireland triggers forgotten memories from childhood he is forced to confront the reality of the choices he makes.

Niall moves into a small rented house in a town where everyone knows everybody else’s business. He discovers that magpies are seen as harbingers of doom in this place, the devil’s bird. Undeterred he sets up the bounds of his research, content to live a spartan life as he studies his subjects. To supplement the meagre fare he prepares for himself at home he cycles out to a restaurant once a week where he meets a young chef named Eddie. Although drawn, he waits for her to come to him.

Eddie moves in with Niall and fills his home with her clutter. This irritates Niall at times but he accepts the unasked for change. He has embarked on a clandestine affair with the daughter of a wealthy businessman who rides her horse through his research area. He acts according to instinct rather than sense.

Niall is suffering nightmares, flashbacks to images of a child who is drowning and a woman surrounded by blood. As his research and personal life start to unravel so too does his grip on reality. He flees what he believes to be a perilous situation, unable to differentiate between hallucination and what is happening in real life.

The writing is vivid with sinister undercurrents. Niall comes across as detached, suppressing emotion and accepting what is offered despite misgivings. The setting is evoked with detailed imagery. There is an assumption that the reader will have a knowledge of nature that I struggled with at times but this sets the scene for the important role the magpies have in the tale. The author has captured the sense of the place and the vernacular of the people. The detailed descriptions of food suggest she has a mastery well beyond mine.

The cruelties of nature are portrayed in sometimes sickening detail. I wondered why it was harder to read of the avian suffering than that of the people. All of this adds to the layers being unpeeled as Niall’s past is revealed and the reasons for his conduct become clear. We start to see him through other’s eyes as he begins to look candidly at himself.

An enjoyable read that offers much to consider regarding human behaviour. This is a love story but so much more. The science was intriguing adding an unusual but fascinating dimension. I will never look at magpies in the same way again.

Book Review: Children’s Children

Children's Children Front for Web

Children’s Children, by Jan Carson, is a collection of fifteen short stories exploring the concept of legacy and the influence of one generation upon the next. Many are set in and around particular streets in Belfast. They capture the cut and concerns of the people of this city to perfection.

The author writes with a distinct and original voice. Her prose is rich and satisfying offering up the humour and poignancy of the folk she creates with heart-rending perceptiveness. She inhabits their troubles allowing the reader to get to know their true selves better than they would ever be comfortable with. Their cultural reticence and need to be seen in a certain way is as darkly comic as it is tragic, yet they are presented in a way that cannot help but create sympathy for the situations they must survive.

Each of the stories offer insight into typical family dilemmas: ageing, bereavement, guilt, resentment, the misunderstandings that exist between the sexes and the generations. Some of the tales are told in a straightforward style whilst others stray into allegory and surrealism. Always the prose is beautifully structured, the words invade the senses. These are snapshots of ordinary lives being lived in all their glorious, wretched humanity.

It was pure pleasure to read these tales. The author has an eye and a zest for what is behind the facades people present to others, and can capture these observations with turns of phrase that delight. I could quote again and again but out of context the acuity may be lost. Buy this book and enjoy for yourselves.

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

 

Book Review: My Father’s House by Bethany Dawson

Recommended to me by a friend from my school days who still lives in the province, this book is set in contemporary Northern Ireland but spends much of the story looking back. Having grown up in Belfast, many of the places mentioned were familiar. It did at times feel rather too spread out for the distances that those living in the rural communities depicted would have felt comfortable travelling. Although the six counties are small, the people lived insular lives and travelling further than a town or two away with any regularity would have been unusual. The way everyone knew everyone else and gossip was rife was picked up well though.

It took a while for me to synch with the cadence of the book. At first the language felt stilted, but it soon started to feel correct for the characters portrayed. The author captures the balance between expectation, duty, geographical closeness and the topics that remain guessed at yet unspoken within families with an accuracy that made me feel disturbed and uncomfortable. There is no doubt that this book affected me very personally.

The plot revolves around a family whose father is dying of cancer. Life in rural Ulster is described with an uncanny realism although I did feel there were a few flaws. The mother had left the father and somehow managed to finance a new home. How she did that was never explained. As a wife of twenty or so years she did not work outside of the family home and farm. To suddenly leave her husband would have been highly unusual; to be able to afford to do so in such a comfortable way struck me as unlikely.

None of the characters were particularly appealing. Their flaws were well portrayed but not their better qualities, which must have existed in some form for them to have got to where they were. The underlying tensions between siblings and the way children see their parents as always old were well described. I found the second half of the book easier to read as we were shown glimpses of the people the parents used to be and understood better why they had got together. As a parent myself I find it frustrating that my children cannot see me as an individual but only in relation to themselves.

I found the denouement satisfying. Given the picture that had been painted in the previous two hundred or so pages I felt that any other ending would have felt false. There is very little in this book that did not feel all too real. It is full of raw emotion with no glossing over weaknesses and flaws.

The book disturbed me, probably because so much of the tale felt too close to home for comfort. I consider a book that can get to me in this way to be powerful. For those who cannot relate to the intricacies of the time and place, it is a well written family saga. There are no great shocks or changes of direction, but the book is a page turner and a satisfying read.

I am left with a few questions that I would have liked to have had answered by the end of the book, such as why the father sold his land and where the money went. It was, however, a story about people and their tales were tidied to believable and generally satisfying conclusions. For me then it was not a comfortable read due to the thoughts and memories it provoked. I am glad though to have read it and would recommend it to others who enjoy this genre.

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Memory

After just over a week of fairly intense but ultimately satisfying creative writing, the word count on my NaNoWriMo story reached the half way mark late yesterday afternoon. To celebrate I gave myself the evening off. I have found that, when I am writing, the time just disappears. I am keeping up with the essential tasks needed to keep my little household ticking over but am managing little else.

What to do then with this time off that I granted myself? I chose to pick up a book that I received for my birthday several months ago and have been looking forward to reading. This turned out to be quite an intense and thought provoking experience in itself.

The book, ‘My Father’s House’ by Bethany Dawson, is set in Ireland, primarily the North, and revolves around a family whose son moved to Dublin and has not been in touch for over five years. It opens with his return to the family fold following news that his father is dying of cancer. I have so far read about half the book and have found the memories it evokes disturbing.

The author has managed to create a tale that captures Northern Ireland and family life in a way that I find uncomfortably too close to home. Just like the protagonist in the story, I escaped what I felt was a claustrophobic life and suffer guilt at having abandoned my perceived duty to my wider family. The part of the book that I have read so far suggests that unhappy memories are being suppressed; I cannot relate to that. If anything my guilt stems from the fact that I was loved so much yet felt suffocated by the expectations of those who cared for me.

Throughout my time in England I have come across other ladies around my age who were raised in Northern Ireland and still have large families living ‘back home’. They talk of missing the place, the closeness of the communities and the contact with the extended family members who were rarely far away. It was these aspects that I wished to escape. I felt smothered and unable to move without whatever I was doing being discussed and, too often, criticised. I longed for the freedom to do as I pleased without being held to account by those who loved me.

Northern Ireland folk are as friendly and welcoming as anyone could wish for. Families are close and supportive, yet much of what individuals personally feel or experience was never discussed when I lived there. There were so many things that were taboo, topics that were avoided, ignored or concealed. This book evokes these attitudes and I found reading about this familiar yet forgotten way of living difficult.

As ever I am aware that my antipathy towards such attitudes is at odds with the majority of those I know. I am the odd one out which I guess is why I wanted to leave so much. The book has opened up memories that have discomfited me.

Memory is a strange beast. Sometimes when I talk to my sister, who grew up in the same house as me and experienced the same people and way of life, I realise that we watched what was going on through different lenses. We did not talk freely of our issues back then, although when we get together now we can be more open. There were four of us living in that house and I sometimes feel that we barely knew each other.

There was love and there was support in abundance, but we each did our best to act out the role that was expected of us. We lived our personal lives in secret, and have generally continued to do so. Edited highlights are shared but so much of our daily thoughts and experiences remain unspoken and unknown.

The characters that the author has created in this book remind me of so many I knew. The guilt, the expectations, the resentments, the love. It is not a heavy or difficult book but, for me, it is raw.

Of course I cannot say if my experience is in any way typical, or even if any of my family members would feel as I do, but I am disturbed by this book because it opens up a box that I had not realised I prefer to keep closed. It uncovers my selfishness for leaving and returning only when I feel I must.

I have made a new life for myself and it feels far removed from the life I was raised to lead. The choices that I made were right for me but I must now live with the knowledge that, in doing so, I may have caused hurt. I was expected to marry and stay to raise my children close to what was considered my home. I feel guilty for escaping, guilty for not wishing to return. That is the price I paid for my freedom, but those who loved me also paid the price of loss and they were given no choice.

With half the book still to read I have yet to discover if there were other reasons for the protagonist in the story to break away. Perhaps my guilt is as much because my reasons were totally selfish. I needed to get out to preserve myself but this book has made me think about what my actions cost those I left behind.

As we do not talk about these things I will never know if my parents blamed me for leaving, if my guilt is even justified. I do know that, unlike many of those I speak to from similar backgrounds, I have never had any wish to return.

English: Northern Ireland

Things that go Bang! in the night

This week’s Remember the Time Blog Hop has the theme: Halloween

Remember the Time Blog Hop

Growing up in Belfast during The Troubles I did not get to experience fireworks; the sale of these explosive devices was banned throughout Northern Ireland. When we heard the bang of an explosion it was most likely to be a bomb going off, an all too frequent occurrence in the city throughout the 1970s.

Across the water in England there was much talk of bonfire night (5th November) when effigies of Guy Fawkes would be burned and fireworks would be lit in people’s gardens or at organised displays. We did not celebrate this event, preferring the traditions of Halloween.

My mother would dig the inside out of a large turnip (the English call this vegetable a swede) to make a Jack-o’-lantern. The great effort required to do this was lost on me at the time, but I did appreciate the scary face she would carve and the glow when the candle was placed inside and lit. It smelled awful.

I do not remember dressing up and we did not go trick or treating. Our low key parties involved games such as ducking for apples in a basin of water and munching on toffee covered apples that my mother made for us. We would light sparklers in our back yard and swirl these sticks of light around, making momentary trails of miniature stars in the cold dark. I found these thrilling.

Our most memorable Halloween party though was one year when my cousins came over to join us for the evening. They had discovered a new entertainment and brought it over to try: indoor fireworks!

My parents must have been redecorating our front room as it had no carpet. We four children were sitting on bare floorboards while the adults enjoyed drinks in the back room next door. I guess we knew that this new, exciting amusement would be frowned upon because we did not seek permission to proceed. Instead, we read the instructions carefully and gathered together the implements required: matches and a plate. Unfortunately we selected one of my mother’s best plates, set out ready for the adult’s supper later.

My younger cousin had possession of the pack of fireworks so was the one to prepare the first device and light the fuse. We watched with bated breath, expecting a colourful explosion of light that would fill the room. It was exciting and scary, probably because we could not truly believe that a firework indoors could be safe.

As the lit fuse reached it’s base there was a slight pop and then a mighty crack as the plate holding the non firing firework was sundered. At that moment, perhaps realising (as a parent will) that we children were up to some mischief, my mother walked into the room. We got the explosion we had been waiting for, but not from the anticipated source.

My mother’s plate could not be replaced. She could not comprehend why we had not used an old, cheap item of crockery or, better yet, gone outside (but they were indoor fireworks mummy!). Young kids playing with lit matches on a wooden floor horrified her. I am not sure if there was a crime that we had not committed that night.

The remaining fireworks were removed and we were sent to find less damaging entertainments. Chastened and tearful we each blamed the other for causing such upset. I think we were as put out about the lack of display from the one device we had managed to light; all that trouble caused and not even a show to mollify us.

Halloween has now changed beyond recognition as the American traditions have crossed the water. Candy, costumes and pumpkins have all been adopted with barely an apple in sight. The thrill and fear of what the night may hold has been replaced with a jolly celebration as the ghosts and ghouls become figures of fun to be mocked and played with. If the souls of the dead are still at large, they stay away.

Fireworks

To read the other posts in this week’s Blog Hop, click on the link below.