Thursday 22 August 2019

Books: A timely, if tragic, story of gay love lost

Fiction: Somewhere Inside of Happy, Anna McPartlin, Transworld Ireland, pbk, 250 pages, €17.99

Talent for dialogue: Anna McPartlin
Talent for dialogue: Anna McPartlin
Somewhere Inside of Happy by Anna McPartlin

Siobhan Hegarty

With the first same-sex marriages finally taking place here this week, author Anna McPartlin's latest offering on the sometimes dire consequences of homophobia couldn't be more timely.

To her credit, Wicklow-based McPartlin is an author who doesn't shy away from the big subjects - her last book The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes told the story of a young mother dying from cancer.

Somewhere Inside of Happy is McPartlin's seventh book. It centres on a night in January 1995 when Dubliner Maisie Brennan's life changes forever. Her beautiful teenage son Jeremy is missing and all anyone can do is hope that he returns.

Maisie's life has been tough - she is raising her two children (she also has a daughter, Valerie) on her own since she finally escaped from her violent husband - a man who nearly killed her the last time he beat her up. Maisie moved in with her mother after the separation and experienced a few happy years before Bridie developed Alzheimer's and life become very difficult again.

In chapter one of this novel the local policeman, Fred Brennan, asks Maisie out on a date while she is grocery shopping with Valerie - and Maisie surprises herself greatly by saying 'yes'. Maisie's lack of self-awareness is startling here - as the book unfolds it becomes very clear that Maisie is not a woman who possesses the assertiveness needed to say 'thanks, but no thanks'.

Fred has been in love with Maisie for years, and it was he who made her escape from her marriage possible when he took matters into his own hands and quietly 'sorted out' her ex-husband. The experience of being kidnapped and made to dig his own grave - along with a spell in hospital - made Danny Fox understandably too terrified to darken Maisie's door again.

Meanwhile, we learn that 16-year-old Jeremy is gay, but in the closet - in Ireland 20 years ago most LGBT people felt they couldn't come out because of the stigma, and a lot emigrated. He is in love with his best friend Rave, and is thoroughly ashamed of his sexuality.

The narrative unfolds by alternating between Maisie's life when she discovers her son is missing, and fast-paced chapters in which the events of the tragic night in which Jeremy loses his life play out.

Arguably, this literary device doesn't work too well - the reader is always going to want to know what happened to Jeremy. I found myself skipping ahead to find out how he died and then having to go back and read the previous chapters. It is also hard to overlook the fact that the protagonist Maisie marries Danny, the man who raped her when she was an innocent and vulnerable teenager. Plus, if Bridie's demented state from Alzheimer's - she is so far gone that she regularly strips naked regardless of who's around - was meant to bring some comic relief, it definitely didn't for this reviewer.

Despite this, McPartlin's talent for dialogue and the cadence of language is as true as ever. The book is also worthwhile for its message of acceptance and a mother's love, which ultimately gives Maisie the ability to be able to forgive the person who took her son's life.

The story itself is heart-warming, timely and well intentioned, if not quite the tour de force that The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes was.

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