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A loss of innocence in 1950s Belfast


A statue of Queen Victoria outside Belfast City Hall, pictured in 1950

A statue of Queen Victoria outside Belfast City Hall, pictured in 1950

A statue of Queen Victoria outside Belfast City Hall, pictured in 1950

The Friday Tree by Sophia Hillan (Ward River Press, €16.99)

The Friday Tree is the first novel to be published by Poolbeg's new literary imprint, Ward River Press. Coming more than 30 years after the late David Marcus encouraged its author to write a novel, it has, says Hillan, been a long while in the making. But it's well worth the wait. Set in Belfast, the book opens "in a time when men of a certain standing wore dark suits and hats, their wives soft wool with a single strand of pearls, and families aspired to modest comfort."

As part of just such a family, five-year-old Brigid Arthur and her 11-year-old brother Francis have been enjoying a secure home life until a night in August 1955 when their father's health problems result in them being left temporarily in the care of Isobel, a duplicitous, sharp-tongued help with her own agenda. Then Dicky, the family's pet budgie escapes from his cage and takes refuge in the plot, a piece of land behind the house divided into allotments, two of which are rented by a pair of RUC officers.

Though strictly out of bounds to the children, Francis and Brigid sneak into the plot to retrieve Dicky. At the foot of the Friday Tree – so named by Brigid as one of seven bordering the plot – they find what looks like a hideout, a small pile of possessions in a makeshift hut. Watchful and wise beyond his years, Francis urges his sister to keep their discovery secret.

Meanwhile, from behind the dividing fence, their sly and precocious nine-year-old neighbour Ned Silver watches their every move. September heralds Brigid's first day at school and with it the smell of pencils and chalk dust; hard-faced nuns with dangling wooden beads and vast butterfly hats; blurry lines on a distant blackboard and an inescapable sense of abandonment

As the year goes on, the comforting certainties of Brigid's childhood are replaced by a growing sense of unease mirroring that of the surrounding political climate. The start of the troubles in 1969 may still be 14 years away, but the seeds of conflict have already been sown.

With an unerring sense of time and place, Hillan wonderfully evokes a gas-lit 1950s landscape of trolleybuses, bread vans and children swinging from ropes around lamp-posts; and the vulnerability of a child struggling to come to grips with the complexities of an adult world.

Sunday Indo Living