Book Review: Music, Love, Drugs, War

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“one day, you turn your head and see that some people have been lost along the way. The truth of the matter is, some of you never did move forward. Some of you stopped and turned off in completely different directions. They didn’t think to say that the hurt was different for them, that they couldn’t move past it. And what you thought was forever, you now know was built on very little”

Liz, Sinéad and Orla are best friends. They hang out at a dive bar, The Cave, with Liz’s brother Paddy and his mates, Christy and Noel. Liz is dating a slightly older guy, Kevin. Orla gets together with Peter. The group drink their pints, smoke too much weed and debate the merits of popular music. Other than Noel, who has his own tatty place, they still live with their parents. Liz and Christy are preparing to sit A’ levels. With few employment opportunities, the others are mostly on the dole.

Opening on St Patrick’s Day 1981 this could be any group of working class young people at the time. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives. But this is Derry, a tinderbox of sectarian violence with the added fuel of the Maze prison hunger strikers. The British army man the checkpoints and barricades. They stalk the streets with their guns and blackened faces. Their armoured vehicles rumble through the housing estates while military helicopters buzz overhead, watchful and threatening.

Drink, drugs, music and making out distract from the reality of living in a city at war. The violence rendered is physical and emotional but also the only life these teenagers have known. The English are despised yet an escape to England is considered a pathway to a better way of living. The future beckons but choices made in the present will inexorably shape its direction.

Rioting intensifies as the hunger strikers start to die, martyrs to a cause in which these young people show little interest. Then some of the group, intoxicated by the collective fear and excitement on the streets, start to join in. One of them is killed setting off a chain reaction that will mark each of them forever.

The story plays out over an intense six month period during which friendship and loyalties are tested to their limits. Actions reverberate through wider family circles. Granting favours can be dangerous.

The author has captured the voice, the time and the place, telling a tale that explains why certain young men joined the IRA. For those of us who lived through these times the memories kindled are as much of the fashions, music and close friendships that later melted away as of the terrible events and experiences that formed the backdrop to adolescent dreams.

Any Cop?: This is a masterful coming of age story but also a depiction of the impact of the Troubles on the generation who were born and raised during the years of conflict. As nostalgic as it is powerful, the story serves as a timely reminder of the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. It is also a damn fine read.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Milkman

Although I have a few on my TBR pile, it has been several years since I read a Booker Prize winner. This year I couldn’t resist. Not only is the author from my hometown of Belfast but her story is set during the early years of The Troubles – the era that I grew up in. Also, I enjoyed her debut, No Bones, so was confident I would get on with her writing style. The final push that encouraged me to seek out Milkman was a respected fellow reviewer telling me this was my sort of read. All the stars aligned when my local library was able to provide me with their newly shelved copy.

Milkman should not be rushed. It is not a difficult read but the stream of consciousness narrative imparts a great deal of information that benefits from unhurried digestion. By the time I was around sixty pages in I had also realised that this story is packed full of dark humour. The community portrayed is recognisable and authentic but their accepted behaviour can, with my now comforting distance of time and place, be regarded as risible.

Very few people are named throughout the tale. Rather, they are referred to by their position within families or how they are alluded to by neighbours. The narrator is middle sister, one of ten siblings, and she is looking back on events that occurred when she was eighteen. Her age is significant. Although an adult and working she is not yet old enough to view the world outside her personal cocoon through the lens of lived experience. She copes with the relentless violence and oppression that surrounds her by not paying attention.

Middle sister likes to read while walking, behaviour that is regarded by her community as beyond the pale. When an older, married and powerful paramilitary – Milkman – makes it known that he is stalking her she has no idea why he has singled her out or how to get rid of him. Rumours quickly circulate that they are having an affair.

Middle sister’s mother is appalled, although she can’t quite work out if this is because her daughter isn’t yet married or because she is now the subject of gossip which ripples out to include her other non-standard behaviours. Like most matriarchs in the locality, mother has lost children to the political situation, or due to their transgressions from the strict code of conduct demanded and enforced by casually violent men. Women are expected to marry young and then produce lots of babies. Until they do this, the men feel justified in claiming they can’t help but try to claim the women’s time and attention.

“they don’t see you as a person but instead as some cipher, some valueless nobody whose sole objective is to reflect back onto them the glory of themselves.”

As well as reading while walking, middle sister attends an evening class in the city centre. Her teacher tries to broaden the pupil’s horizons but such thinking is viewed with suspicion. In a small and introverted society, admitting to the possibility of alternative ways of living is dangerous.

Middle sister’s late father had suffered from depression, an illness his wife found embarrassing.

“Ma herself didn’t get depressions, didn’t either tolerate depressions and, as with lots of people here who didn’t get them and didn’t tolerate them, she wanted to shake those who did until they caught themselves on.”

Stoicism is expected as the community exists within an atmosphere of entrenched pessimism, a loss of trust and hope. To be happy was a risk because how then to cope when the cause of this happiness was removed, as would inevitably happen. The country is regarded as having a long heritage of darkness, fear and sorrow. Those few who do not feel downtrodden, who are not compliant, are exceptions.

“it was hard to deal with the threat she posed by going about completely holding her own.”

When middle sister protests that she is not having an affair with Milkman, that he has approached but never touched her, she is not believed. In this time and place any young women complaining, ‘he did this to me while I was doing that’, would be regarded askance and have demanded of them, ‘and why were you doing that?’

As the rumours gain momentum and start to affect her health, middle sister notices that there is more going on around her than she has been aware of in her short, blinkered existence. The trouble she had feared bringing down on her secret, maybe boyfriend and on her family if she didn’t comply with Milkman’s demands are not the only dangers they all face.

In amongst the constant surveillance and violent, often botched reprisals from both sides of the political divide are the amusing antics of the youngsters, particularly the three wee sisters. Hospitals are feared so the older women, who may appear at times absurd in their behaviour, come together when needed. A fledgling feminist group is viewed with contempt but also bewilderment. All of these threads add colour and depth to the streets that middle sister must navigate.

The writing is witty and perfectly pitched to both challenge thinking and to entertain. Although plainly set in the Ardoyne area of Belfast in the 1970s, the place is not named. Thus the depiction may be more widely representative of any closed and judgemental community. The author shows her skill in making this tale uplifting despite the many negative behaviours it observes in passing. It is a meaty, delicious and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.

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.

eden-burning

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

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.