Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging are our hosts once again for Reading Ireland Month, celebrating Irish literature and culture. I hope to be able to fit in a second book by a certain much-feted young Irish novelist before the month ends, but today here’s my review of…
Modern Gods by Nick Laird
Nick Laird is a Northern Irish poet and novelist, having written three novels and four poetry collections, winning many awards. He is also married to Zadie Smith, which is irrelevant, but interesting.
Modern Gods is his third novel, published in 2017. It tells the story of two sisters, Alison and Liz, however, before we get meet them, the novel’s prologue begins with tragedy. Two gunmen indiscriminately mow down happy punters at a country and western gig in a Londonderry pub.
Then, some years later, we meet Kenneth and Judith, the sisters’ parents, who are beginning to panic over the upcoming nuptials of Alison’s second marriage.
Alison is their middle child, the responsible one that stayed in Ballyglass, joined the family business, looked after younger brother Spencer when her parents were ill, married Bill, had two wonderful kids, and then discovered Bill was a nasty drunk. Now she’s about to marry Stephen, a decorator who is steady, good with the kids, but is still a bit of a mystery.
Liz is the one who got away, an academic high flyer, now a college professor in New York, but single and childless. She’s returning to Ulster for the wedding, but going straight on to Papua New Guinea, where she is to front a documentary on one of the world’s newest religions on the island of New Ulster.
Liz knew a lot about some things, sure, but nothing about how to live. She was one of life’s tenants – she rented: flats, people, cars. Trying them out, using them up, breaking them down, moving along. Liz was older, twenty-one months older, but as soon as Alison could speak she’d adopted the responsible role. Had Liz got money? Had she got tissues? Had she remembered her packed lunch? Alison could never have told her, of course, but it clear as day that Liz would never become an adult till she had children of her own…
The lives of both sisters will be shaken up in the days and weeks that follow the wedding. Alison will wake up the next morning to discover Stephen’s past. He had tried to tell her but she’d said he didn’t need to. Now, the papers have found revealed him – and she’s in total shock.
Meanwhile, now on the other side of the world, Liz and her team meet Belef, the charismatic woman leader of a cargo cult that is taking away people from the Christian mission on the island, performing rituals around the jungle airstrip they have made, hoping that airplanes will bring them the Western goods that the missionaries can’t provide. Liz finds herself getting in deeper and deeper as Belef uses the unwitting documentary team to further her own beliefs.
Laird alternates between the stories of Alison and Liz, effectively comparing and contrasting the two women’s situations, their beliefs, their pasts, and whether their family will survive, metaphorically, mentally and physically, both women will suffer and be in danger. Laird splits the novel into two parts – for Alison that’s before and after the wedding, for Liz the split comes when she starts to get deeper into the cult. I found myself more interested in Alison’s life in the first half, and Liz’s in the second.
The five chapters of Alison’s life in the first half each have an short appendix – memories of a loved one murdered in the pub massacre, the youngest was just 17, the oldest early seventies. These poignant sections bring home the turbulent times, but also signal that things are not what they seem in the present. By contrast, as Liz, her director Margo and cameraman Paolo, get deeper into trying to understand Belef’s cult, Josh from the local mission tries to stop them, but Liz in particular is hooked by Belef and when they all get high on the local psychedelic brew, it’s almost too late. The layers interleave well, keeping you invested in both sisters’ stories and Laird’s lush descriptions of the PNG jungle contrast with the tabloid frenzy back in Ballyglass.
If I had a criticism, it would be that the supporting characters were very underdeveloped – Paolo, Margo and the mission staff in PNG, Kenneth, Judith and Spencer in Ballyglass – it was all about Alison and Liz, and Stephen to a slightly lesser extent. That would have made the book overlong, although some chapters were a bit long-winded and could have been tautened to accommodate more of the others’ lives and tied up their ends better. I was left, however, wanting to read up about cargo cults, and wondering whether I should read Anna Burns’ Milkman sooner than Sally Rooney as previously planned. (7/10)
Source: Library. Nick Laird, Modern Gods (Viking, 2017) Penguin paperback, 320 pages.
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