My second book for Reading Ireland month hosted by Cathy, I’m really glad to have read this superb novel, which has recently been longlisted for the Women’s Prize. It is set in County Down at the time of the Troubles in the early 1970s, and tells the story of two star-crossed lovers – one Catholic, one Protestant. Cushla is a young Catholic teacher in her mid-twenties, who falls for an older Protestant barrister and family man. As you may guess, religious politics will play a large part in their inevitably doomed relationship. As the novel begins, Cushla is starting her shift in the family pub run by her brother Eamonn, having come from the School’s service for the first day of Lent.
Most of the men who drank in the pub did not get ashes on Ash Wednesday or do the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday or go to Mass on Sunday. t was one thing to drink in a Catholic-owned bar; quite another to have your pint pulled by a woman smeared in papish warpaint.
The bar is being propped by the team of regulars, Jimmy, Minty, Leslie and Fidel, the latter being in the Ulster Defence Army. Sometimes there are soldiers at the tables who, shall we say, tend to be over-friendly to Cushla. But today, there’s another man sitting at the bar, older, nursing a whisky. This is Michael Agnew, who will keep Cushla company after Eamonn ejects the soldiers for groping Cushla and she sends Eamonn home for a while to say goodnight to his kids. When Cushla gets home she tells her mum, Gina, who is mostly fuelled by gin and pills, about Michael.
…he’s fifty-odd, said Gina.
He looks younger, said Cushla.
Is he still gorgeous? said Gina. He was a ladykiller in his day. God, I haven’t seen him for donkey’s years. He got on well with your daddy.
Everything in this story is complicated by the Troubles, and the sectarian division of the society. Just one wrong word can be twisted and misread with untold consequences; Eamonn’s customers are mostly Protestants and he is extremely aware of that. Michael returns to the pub and asks Cushla if she’d give him and some friends in Belfast Irish lessons. She is beguiled by him, although it is awkward and complicated, as his friends know his wife and family, but they rather take to Cushla too, and ere long she and Michael launch in a full-blown affair, carried out at his Belfast flat where he works.
Cushla teaches at the local primary school where they are all, even the children, used to talking daily about bombings and beatings, and Father Slattery rules the children with catechism and horror stories about sinners. Cushla has little time for Father Slattery, but does look out for seven-year-old Davy McGeown who, coming from a struggling mixed marriage, is friendless and in danger of being taken in by social workers. She gives him a lift to school when she can and tries to look after him for he’s a bright boy, but when his father is nearly beaten to death her efforts to help the family will go very wrong, putting everyone in danger.
It is impossible not to long for a happy ending for Cushla and Michael, however impossible that may appear. Kennedy invests such emotional depth into her two protagonists that I was swept away by them, only to be brought back to earth each time real life intervened and the difficulties posed by the Troubles got in the way. Kennedy contrasts the romance with the politics with balance, understanding and strong empathy as well as having a strong feel for the times and places. Although different in subject and theme, the strength of her writing reminded me of Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies, the finest book about male friendship I’ve read for years.
This is a fine first novel indeed, from a writer I will long to read more by. Don’t just take my word for it – read Susan’s review here.
Source: Own copy. Bloomsbury, 320 pages. Out in paperback later this week. (10/10)
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