Sunday 22 October 2017

A post-Tiger story that finally shows some claws

Irish fiction, so often criticised for favouring the backward look, has recently been intent on engaging with contemporary concerns -- notably in the newer wave of thrillers, which have used post-Celtic Tiger Ireland both as a suitable setting for grubby misdeeds and as an invitation to indulge in sociological scrutiny that's meant to be meaningful but seldom rises above the banal.

And what we call 'literary' fiction hasn't always offered deeper insights. Most recently, Claire Kilroy's The Devil I Know resorted to cardboard characters, easy hindsight and glib satire in its attempt to fashion a nightmarish comedy about the state in which we currently find ourselves.

So it's bracing to read a first novel that's just as up-to-date in its concerns but that also transcends the merely topical in its bleak, if often savagely funny, vision of a rural Ireland that's been blighted as much by the suppressed desires of its inhabitants as by the economic downturn which gives vent to their impotent rage.

From the very first page, as unemployed Bobby tells of his hatred for his malevolent father, we're in the dark heart of a despairing people, though Bobby's side of things is merely one among many. Indeed, in 21 brief chapters (the book runs to a mere 150 pages), we get the first-person accounts of 21 people, all of whom have been affected in some way by the economic collapse.

Bobby himself had been foreman for a local builder who never paid stamps for his workers and who fled the country after sinking his money in "some monstrosity beyond in Dubai".

Then there's legal secretary Realtin, who's living in a ghost estate with her baby son; sociopathic fantasist Trevor, who gets employed in a creche; depressive building mate Seanie, who frequently "can't see for the blackness"; Bridie, whose husband left her after their son drowned in an accident; and Realtin's disgruntled colleague Hillary, who's convinced that "a lot of those culchies are mad".

Indeed, madness never seems too far away as lives of quiet desperation seem constantly on the verge of violence, so that when violence does erupt it has the feeling of inevitability.

This is a society where, as Seanie observes, "it's all gone to shit" and where gossip, rumour and petty resentments are allowed to fester.

There are echoes in all this of Patrick McCabe's stray sod country, though Tipperary-born Donal Ryan has an imaginative insight into his characters that's all his own and a furious energy to his prose that gives arrestingly vivid life to these blighted souls.

If there's a weakness here it's one of tonal variety -- some of the narrative voices sound overly similar to others -- but that's a small complaint to make about such a darkly persuasive debut.

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