Irish secrets: Trespasses and Truth Be Told

February 16, 2023 at 11:36 pm | Posted in Irish Troubles, Northern Ireland, value of the arts, YA Irish fiction | Leave a comment
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The intensity of the forbidden

Sleeping with the enemy. The intensity of the forbidden. Always a topic to set the mind questioning and the heart racing. The protagonist of Louise Kennedy’s Belfast novel Trespasses, Cushla Lavery (whose given name derives from the Irish phrase A chuisle mo chroi – the pulse of my heart) is 24 and in love with Michael Agnew. Cushla is a Catholic primary school teacher who helps out in the family pub some nights.

Not only is the age gap there with the middle-aged Michael, he’s Protestant, and married as well. The novel’s gritty detail and nuanced portrayal of Cushla’s feelings transport the reader to Belfast in 1975 where Michael is a barrister who defends young Catholic men who have been wrongly arrested. The stakes couldn’t be higher. 

Kennedy’s unshowy writing conjures a vivid world with details so sensuous we can smell and hear them. Cushla’s first time away with Michael sees them in a posh Dublin restaurant: 

Her gut burned with want. That she might get away from her family, her mother, and be with this man.

Sounds she could feel on her skin. His voice. Silver tinkling against porcelain. Corks popping. He said the last time he ate here Stanley Kubrick was at a table in the corner. (p. 165)

‘Sounds she could feel on her skin’ – evocative and original. The reader knows about the deprivations of Cushla’s life already and that phrase is more than a description. We can touch the protagonist’s longing, we can taste her hunger for this other world. 

Here’s an example of Kennedy’s economical expression – she traces Cushla’s childhood to the present by the telling detail. We see all we need to know about the mother-daughter dynamic in three lines: 

The bang of the front door, heels across the wood. Since she was a child, Cushla could read Gina’s steps. Short and clipped when she was angry. Light when she was sneaking a drink. Erratic, now; she was drunk.’ (p. 260) 

Trespasses was a favourite of the Irish novels that I read last year before going to the Heinrich Böll writer’s residency. Kennedy’s writerly restraint and unsentimentality lend all the more power to the events depicted as she explores the ambiguities of love and issues of identity in Belfast, that city of secrets and sectarian violence. 

Louise Kennedy at the Adelaide Writers Festival

Louise Kennedy, who has been a chef this past thirty years, will be a guest at the Adelaide Writers Festival in March. If I hadn’t already given my copy of her novel away I could have asked her to sign it. No regrets though; I read so much that the books I actually buy, the ones that don’t get returned to the library, are mostly out in the world circulating, being enjoyed, being discussed or argued about, laughed or cried over, rather than on my shelves. I’m like a free-lance librarian, putting books out there for others to be stimulated and moved by. 

Parent Trap meets Derry Girls

Another novel set in present-day Belfast but still dealing with sectarian tensions is Sue Divin’s Truth Be Told (Macmillan, 2022). I read this Young Adult novel, which received brilliant reviews in The Irish Times, when I was in Ireland in December. 

The writing plunges us into the world of two very different sixteen-year old girls, one Protestant and one Catholic. This is 2019 but the past sectarian stresses and tragedies have come down the generations, their detrimental effects in evidence in the present peaceful times even when the specific causes have been kept secret, perhaps especially because they’re secret. 

The suspenseful plot is driven by the secrets kept by both families. Faith has been raised not just as a Protestant but within a fundamentalist branch of that religion. Tara’s people are Catholic. Faith holds within herself a guilty secret, blaming herself for what is not her fault and Tara is a rebellious whirl of unanswered questions about why she hasn’t a father or grandfather. 

When finally the intrigues and gaps are teased out it’s all: 

‘How could we not have known? Why ever didn’t you say?’ The Troubles. The mortification. The stab of sin and shaming from men of religion. The stab of fear in the shadows from men with guns. The distancing of communities. The rawness of trauma. The tension you could slice during the Hunger Strikes.’ (p. 234)

But when all is out in the open, Tara observes: ‘Everyone sits again and, as it turns out, Protestants and Catholics are all the same when it’s about cups of tea and plates of biscuits. The whole country could have been sorted out with better catering.’ (p. 235)

Sue Divin is a Derry-based writer and peace worker. She believes that fiction is a powerful tool for creating empathy and that empathy is a powerful tool for creating peace. 

If you haven’t seen Derry Girls you’re missing out on some belly laughs. Lisa McGee wrote it to lend a female perspective to the hitherto grim, heavy-duty, male-dominated writing about Northern Ireland. Its three series is still streaming on Netflix.

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