Saturday 24 February 2018

A Glorious follow-up

Fiction: The Blood Miracles, Lisa McInerney, John Murray, hdbk, 304 pages, €17.99

Kinetic quality: Lisa McInerney revisits several characters from her first book in The Blood Miracles. Photo Brian Farrell
Kinetic quality: Lisa McInerney revisits several characters from her first book in The Blood Miracles. Photo Brian Farrell
Blood Miracles

Lisa McInerney's prize-winning debut spearheaded a bold new wave of Irish fiction. Her rollicking second novel does not disappoint, writes HILARY A WHITE Critics and fellow authors emptied the superlative tank upon the arrival of Lisa McInerney's charged Cork-underworld saga The Glorious Heresies in 2015.

The Gort writer's debut wore the plumage of a crime novel, just as this feverishly anticipated sequel does, but the sheer kinetic quality of the language inside resulted in the book bypassing that genre and muscling its way in beside the Ryans, Barrys and McBrides that were spearheading a bold new wave of Irish fiction.

That novel outsoared the hyperbole, and impressively so. A litter of translations into various languages followed along with two major literary awards (the Desmond Elliott and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction). It then emerged that a TV adaptation had been signed-off on.

Whether television viewers outside the People's Republic will need subtitles to take in the intricacies of the heavy Cork slang that McInerney uses to score her character's conversations remains to be seen. Mind you, the recent comedy-caper The Young Offenders risked something similar when it was marketed to overseas markets, and that gamble has paid off well. While the tongue and the sing-song inflections might be from the same crescents and avenues, that film is very much the sunnier side of the Lee to the one McInerney fires at you.

And so we come to the second part of her trilogy. McInerney has said that she tends to "wallow in characters and plot" and while this doesn't seamlessly pick up where The Glorious Heresies left off, the same cast of characters are employed.

Twenty-year-old Ryan Cusack is out of prison and working for mid-tier drug dealer Dan Kane. His dad, Tony, is "the pushover lush, the weak-willed gom" of the first book, while Ryan's girlfriend Karine is fed up with him and for good reason. On a dark and drug-addled night of the soul, he befriends the much older Maureen (the star of The Glorious Heresies) who takes him under her wing, after a fashion. The third woman who is muddling Ryan's mind severely is the alluring Natalie, with whom he rebounds quickly and thoroughly after Karine dumps him.

But Ryan has a fundamental flaw, just like all the great protagonists in the universe - from his mother, he inherited Neapolitan blood, "and Neapolitan blood is restless". His early promise at piano and his later passion for electronic music can never compete with what he's best at.

"His is the business of fledgling savages the world over: he facilitates the movement of illegal inebriants from his foolhardy class into the hands and mouths and nostrils of those who should know better. He feigns a swagger to hide the fact that he doesn't breathe easy and doesn't sleep well."

His lineage equips him more-or-less to negotiate with Italian suppliers, but it also brings heat and impulsivity when cool-headedness is needed in a city as treacherously small as Cork. So if, for example, it turned out that somebody had relieved Dan Kane of a large consignment of pills shortly before Ryan discovered that Natalie has also been sleeping with his dangerous boss, then Ryan would struggle, and does.

This is only a portion of the "complications" the author puts Ryan through. While Karine and Ryan's on-again-off-again relationship tick-tocks (one time too many, perhaps), the punctuating epistolary chapters addressed to his dead mother offer another effective vantage point from which to consider this complicated character. A grand Madonna looming overhead and scuppering him from day one.

Zippy, even when a corner is approaching, McInerney has this weird ability to pack what Sebastian Barry described to me in a recent interview as "a microchip of energy" into her sentences to the effect that dense quantities of sensation and characterisation get through osmotically via a heightened frames-per-second rate.

It's quite a trick, and it means that scenes, even momentary, throb with life. There is poetry somewhere in the mix, as well as the Irish knack for subversion and understatement. People at a fairground "whirl in the air… prisoners of mechanical beasts weaving webs from happy howls". If we were told nothing else about Maureen except that she "found foreknowledge on her travels, because hauling up your anchor makes your judgement keen and your eyes second-sighted", it would be enough.

The Blood Miracles is not a straight-up effervescent shenanigan with a slew of dissolute, mouthy characters. There is a lot of heart in the tale as well. Poignant threads appear that relate to lost dreams and emotional scarring. McInerney uses a lost piano that Ryan did his grading on as a child as a McGuffin that Maureen pushes him to re-evaluate. There are traces of a better version of Ryan somewhere there, just strong enough for us to root for him beyond his recklessness and plain idiocy.

Delectable and vigorously entertaining, The Blood Miracles is a rollicking night in. All that is left to emerge is whether we have gotten over the shock of McInerney's arrival, when she shot out of the blogosphere fully formed and dazzlingly skilled.

Will it mean that we can now sit The Blood Miracles under the 'Emerald Noir' umbrella - and no dishonour in that - or is she still too 'literary' to simply be a crime novelist? Whatever the answer, she remains impossible to ignore.

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