This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.
There have been a growing number of fine books published recently where the story unfolds amidst a backdrop of Belfast’s Troubles. Adding to these, Trespasses stands out for its powerful and forensic dissection of just how pervasive the sides taken during this time were in ordinary residents’ everyday choices and experiences.
It focuses on Cushla Lavery, a twenty-four year old primary school teacher who embarks on an affair with Michael, an older, married man who knew her late father. Michael is a barrister, a Protestant whose wealthy peers accept his philandering.
The bones of the tale, then, are commonplace in fiction – unwise sexual liaisons that lead to difficulties and recriminations. Let me assure you, however, this is not a story akin to others read. The threads woven are tangled up with how the Belfast community in the 1970s was so bitterly divided. Church and state propounded hatred and condoned the violent treatment meted out as maybe illegal but likely deserved. Fear and guilt were sown at every turn to ensure compliance.
Other than a brief prologue and epilogue, the action takes place in 1975. Cushla, a Catholic, enters her family’s bar on Ash Wednesday with the ‘papish warpaint’ of the day visible on her forehead. Her brother, Eamonn, demands she remove it lest their customers are affronted. The bar may be Catholic owned but it serves many Protestants, including army personnel from a nearby barracks. Being located just outside the city, it has thus far avoided much of the violence inherent therein.
The bar has a television set and the author uses news broadcasts as a means of conveying how normalised daily beatings, murders and bombings were. At her school, Cushla is required to start the day by asking the children she teaches to share a recent news item, the headmaster claiming they should be aware of the world around them.
“Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now.”
Cushla lives with her alcoholic mother, Gina, and is tasked with caring for her through Gina’s increasingly regular benders. When she is invited into Michael’s world it is an escape. Here she can discuss music, art and literature. His friends’ political views may be at odds with hers but Michael himself is more tolerant and sympathetic.
“Everyone else takes a position. Like ‘those towers are full of Provos and they deserve all they get’. Or ‘they’re lucky to be getting a place to live for nothing’. You don’t do that.
It’s depressing that you find that remarkable, he said.”
When Cushla tries to help the family of one of her pupils, Davy, whose father has suffered a life changing beating, it draws the attention of her employer and the hate filled priest who has unfettered access to the school and its pupils – who Cushla struggles to protect. Davy’s Catholic family have been housed in a Protestant estate where they are subjected to daily abuse, and worse. The sectarian divides in housing, education and available labour offer reminders of how the Troubles were perpetuated.
Residents of the city were subjected to constant surveillance with police and army using their powers to attack and intimidate. There were tit for tat murders carried out by both sides’ sectarian organisations. The story brings to the fore how it wasn’t just the horrific violence that became commonplace but also the hatred and bigotry casually spouted by otherwise ‘reasonable’, educated people. Cushla’s kind acts are regarded as insolence, deserving of punishment for not toeing the line expected. Eamonn is furious at the risk she thereby poses, not just to herself but the wider family.
This depiction of the mess that was Belfast during the Troubles serves as the base on which the various strands of the story are built. The author skilfully weaves Cushla and Michael’s affair through the loom of how insular the community they lived within remained. Locals watch and condemn. Much is not spoken of in the hope it will be suppressed or cease if not acknowledged. Children are groomed to take sides and then action, by puppet masters guarding their power bases.
Any Cop?: For those of us who grew up in Belfast during this time period it is a reminder of how much twisted behaviour was passively accepted. The story is of the people depicted and how their lives were affected. A poignant and, at times, rage inducing love story written with mastery and depth.