It’s the mid-seventies in Northern Ireland, and sectarian violence is invading the lives of everyday people in a garrison town outside Belfast, home to our protagonist Cushla Lavery. A Catholic primary school teacher, Cusha lives a humdrum life at home with her alcoholic mother (reminiscent of the mother in Shuggie Bain).
Cushla’s students know words no child should: “Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a 7-year-old child now.” Every morning, they are instructed (per the headmaster) to stand up and share news. The personal is political – what is refracted through the TV screen is reflected in their lives. On one morning, her student Davy McGeown’s father is beaten and left for dead. As a mixed-marriage family living in a Protestant neighbourhood, they are frequent targets for persecution. Cushla comes alive as a character in her compassion for the McGeowns, taking Davy under her wing, bringing books to his older brother, Tommy, who is thinking of dropping out of school, pleading with the headmaster to provide them with free school meals.
‘It was hard to convince the children the stories were nonsense when murder was so commonplace.’
In the evenings, Cushla pulls pints at her brother Eamonn’s pub, where she is frequently subjected to lewd behaviour from the stationed British servicemen. One night, Michael walks in. An older, married Protestant man, he is building a name for himself defending Catholics for crimes against the state. A brief flirtation turns into an affair, under the auspices of her teaching him and his sophisticated friends the Irish language.
There’s a self-awareness that nothing will end well in a narrative about a married Protestant man embarking on an affair with a much younger Catholic woman in 1970’s Belfast. ‘We’re doomed,’ Cushla recognises. ‘Apart from that we’re grand.’ Everything happens in sequestered spaces, an illicit love doomed from the start.
I initially struggled to really connect with the characters, feeling removed in the third-person perspective – but as the story progressed my investment grew. In the final third of the novel the pace begins to pick up, heading in a direction that really, we all should have been prepared for – we know how history goes. And yet we are swept up in Cushla’s infatuation (despite her best judgement), can forgive her for being at Michael’s beck and call, even as it inspires self-loathing. Perhaps a part of her thinks it might just work out, her first great love affair.
Kennedy constructs a vivid moment in place and time, with a keen eye for detail. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and we are ensconced in the era: ABBA posters, beige food, Jimmy Saville – transporting us to a not-so-distant past where ordinary people are swept up, powerless, in the forces of history. The inevitable backdrop of everyday life involves checking the underside of your car for bombs, being stopped at checkpoints by soldiers, and a casual military interruption of a wedding.
The writing is melancholy and intense, but also restrained and sharply-observed and multi-layered. A worthy addition to the Women’s Prize longlist this year.
‘He clinked his drink against hers. Wherever you end up, think of the rest of us poor bastards, stuck in this hellhole.’