Trespasses by Louise Kennedy book review



In Louise Kennedy’s debut novel, the threat of judgment is ever-present and inescapable. “A free country, indeed,” scoffs the protagonist’s mother. “It’s a bigoted hole.” Two pages later, the protagonist’s lover gives his point of view. “It’s not about what you do here,” he says. “It’s about what you are.”

“Trespasses” is set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s amid the sound and the fury of the Troubles. For many, sectarian strife is a brutal reality and a daily ordeal. For Kennedy’s beleaguered characters, it is background noise. However, peace is precarious: All it takes for tensions to flare and violence to erupt is one wrong move, one false allegiance – or one illicit love affair.

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Kennedy’s protagonist is 24-year-old Cushla Lavery. She lives with her mother, Gina, in a small, “mixed” town outside Belfast. Her day job is teaching young children at a Catholic primary school. Some nights she helps her older brother Eamonn at her family’s pub. The place attracts all sorts: a ragtag band of regulars; intimidating and untouchable British soldiers who throw their weight around; and lost causes “who had drunk themselves out of marriages and into unheated bedsits near the esplanade.” Cushla keeps her head down. Eamonn watches what he says, “in case he offends somebody and ends up on a loyalist hit list.”

One evening, Cushla becomes interested in a customer – “the man with the neat whiskey and tidy nails.” Michael Agnew is markedly different from her: He is an “ould lad” in his 50s, Protestant and married. He is also a barrister who fights for the rights of young Catholic men. Opposites attract. Michael asks Cushla to teach him and his middle-class friends to speak Irish, and on the way home from their first “conversation night” one thing leads to another and a romance sparks to life.

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So begins several especially dangerous liaisons, each one conducted in deadly secret. The novel would have been somewhat threadbare had it centered solely on the pair’s forbidden love. Fortunately, Kennedy weaves in another couple of narrative strands. One involves Cushla caring for gin-marinated Gina as she crashes and burns behind closed doors. The other, more substantial plotline, charts Cushla’s relationship with a boy from her class. At school, Davy McGeown is bullied by the other children. At home, he and his family are persecuted by their Protestant neighbors.

When Davy’s father is beaten up and left for dead, Cushla takes Davy and his siblings under her wing. But then disaster comes Cushla’s way. As her world caves in and her pain takes hold, her creator’s parallel plotlines skillfully intersect. At this crisis point Cushla is reminded that in her fractured community, certain acts have terrible repercussions.

Like Cushla, Kennedy grew up near Belfast. She worked as a chef for almost three decades before she turned her hand to writing. Her first foray into fiction was short-form, and last year saw the publication of her collection of stories “The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac.” The best of those tales were miniature marvels which provided snapshots of shattered lives. In “Trespasses,” Kennedy has more room to flesh out her characters and dramatize their predicaments. She does so masterfully, convincing her reader of all that unfolds.

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The book’s gritty backdrop is brilliantly depicted. The Laverys live in a garrison town, “although it had not felt like one until 1969, when the troops were sent in.” We hear of regular disruptions (Cushla and a friend are stopped and searched on their way to a party) and precautions (Cushla’s neighbor checks under his car for a bomb before driving to work). Before lessons, the children in Cushla’s class recount the latest news headlines, each one an itemized atrocity. Booby trap, incendiary device, gelignite and rubber bullets are, writes Kennedy, “The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now.”

Kennedy sprinkles in more idiomatic vocabulary – geg, neb, snatter, wheeker, pokes, marleys – to make her characters’ exchanges ring true. Other, seemingly familiar terms – romper room, sherry trifles – have their innocence stripped from them to reveal a second, more sinister meaning.

Through her thoughts, her deeds and her dialogue, Cushla emerges as a flawed, bruised but ultimately defiant heroine. Whether we find her happy yet unfulfilled with her lover, or at her lowest ebb with her mother – “like a tag team, taking turns to fall apart” – she is someone we root for every step of the way.

Kennedy has written a captivating first novel which manages to be beautiful and devastating in equal measure. Its bittersweetness is encapsulated in one of Cushla’s memorable comebacks. Michael asks if they, as a couple, are all right. “We’re doomed,” she replies. “Apart from that we’re grand.”

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Economist, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New Republic.

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