Wednesday 26 June 2019

Insightful coming-of-age novel set in violent and divided 1980s Derry

Fiction: Music Love Drugs War, Geraldine Quigley, Penquin €13.49

Music Love Drugs War
Music Love Drugs War

Justine Carbery

Northern Irish fiction is having a moment, what with Anna Burns deservedly snagging the Booker Prize with her psychologically claustrophobic novel Milkman about an 18-year-old girl trying to navigate the unspoken rules of a sectarian, paranoid state.

Music Love Drugs War by Geraldine Quigley sets her coming-of-age story during the early 1980s in the bitterly divided town of Derry.

Bobby Sands is on hunger strike. Riots, bombings and indiscriminate shootings abound, an aura of mistrust and paranoia pervading every aspect of daily life, with street and house searches commonplace.

But against this violent backdrop a bunch of typical teenagers are trying to find their place in the world, finishing school and figuring out what to do next. They are much more interested in who is snogging whom and listening to Dexys Midnight Runners in The Cave, 'a grubby and obscure' haunt of bikers, rockers, hippies and punks. Here they flirt, drink cheap beer and experiment with illicit substances. Ordinary kids with ordinary hopes, fears and dreams.

Liz is going out with Kevin, while harbouring secret hopes of getting away from the claustrophobia and menace of the streets by going to college in London. Her brother Paddy and his friend Christy experiment with various pills from Granny's medicine cupboard, while listening to Joy Division. Orla embarks on a romance with the quiet 'wain' Peter. And although everyone knows someone 'inside' or has 'lost a brother', they try to steer clear of sectarian leanings.

But then one night someone gets killed by a plastic bullet and things take on a more serious hue. Shock and anger reverberate throughout the community. No longer can they ignore the political fault-lines and irreversible decisions are made. Paddy and Christy, stunned out of their drug-induced stupor, decide to take action, their involvement with local paramilitaries inviting violence and fear into the lives of all around them. Suddenly it's life or death, and the youngsters have to grow up fast.

This cast of characters is well-drawn, but the viewpoint switches abruptly from one to another without warning, which is jarring, and I had a sense of the writer casting the net too wide. A narrower gaze might have lent more depth.

However, the feel of this friendship group is very authentic, their ribbing and banter entertaining and credible, with Quigley successfully capturing the voices of these young teens. And although the adults are somewhat peripheral to the plot, we get a very real understanding of the terror felt by parents trying to keep their charges out of trouble in such a volatile situation.

In Music Love Drugs War, Quigley affords the reader a unique glimpse into the lives of those teens in The Cave, the nightly street skirmishes and the kitchens of their modest homes.

Her portrayal is warm, without sugar-coating the harsh realities of navigating life in a city under siege. She tenderly explores the bonds of friendship, and the toll that the pervasive violence takes on them all. It's an evocative and insightful coming-of-age novel.

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