An Irish family saga tells story of past 50 years
Liz Kearney on the mesmerising debut novel by poet Justin Quinn
Mount Merrion is the debut novel by Irish poet Justin Quinn and it is a mesmerising one, a deceptively simple family saga spanning more than 40 years.
At first glance it is the story of the Boyles, a middle-class Irish family living at the heart of South County Dublin. But really it is the story of Ireland in the last half of the 20th Century.
When we first meet young Declan Boyle, it's the tail-end of the 1950s and he's in the county hospital in Galway, eager to recover from a lung infection so he can take up his first job in the civil service.
His father, a senior counsel who assumed his son would follow him to the bar, is not impressed. But Declan is idealistic and believes, mistakenly, that proximity to the levers of government power will accelerate the social change he can sense coming.
Much is expected of Declan, not least by his young wife Sinead, who, like him, is smart and modern and excited about the future. United in their ambition to do away with the stultifying formalities of their parents' generation, their marriage begins in a whirl of sociable dinner parties and new recipes Sinead has plucked from the pages of Elizabeth David.
But the Boyles soon find out that their parents do not have a monopoly on dullness – or unhappiness. Before long Sinead, now a suburban housewife and mother of two small children, is relieving her boredom by drinking before lunch. Meanwhile, Declan is growing frustrated at his lack of progress in the civil service.
He quits his job and uses his government contacts to set up a tractor manufacturing business in Connemara, a venture he sees as noble for bringing much-needed employment to the area.
The story is a page-turner, and Quinn's prose consistently light and controlled, even when confronting the family tragedy that arrives with a dull thud at the heart of the novel. The writing is all the more poignant for allowing us only brief glimpses of the Boyles' heartache.
Quinn deftly conveys both the sense of privileged entitlement and heavy air of compromise hanging over the south Dublin set. Even insiders like the Boyles' children Owen and Issie feel distaste for its smug limitations.
By the end, Declan, once the young hero, is enmeshed in public scandal and careworn by loss. His idealistic business venture, seen through the filter of the tribunal at which he finds himself a witness, resembles just another sorry episode of the corruption endemic in Irish life for decades. Consolation, Quinn suggests, is to be found within the family, however troubled.
FICTION Mount Merrion Justin Quinn Penguin Ireland, €14.99, tpbk, 264 pages