Karl Geary has lived several lives, each one more intriguing than the last. Growing up the youngest of eight children in a working-class part of Blackrock in Dublin, Geary began his professional life working in a wallpaper shop in Talbot Street, aged 15. From there, he tried his luck in New York and the payoff was handsome. Another Irish emigrant, Shane Doyle, asked him to help out with the running of a run-down bar called Sin-é, which soon became storied in its own right. He co-founded his own fabled New York bar, The Scratcher. Geary soon heeded the siren song of acting and later, book writing. His scriptwriting credits include Coney Island Baby and the screen adaptation of Dorothy Parker’s You Were Perfectly Fine. After a five-publisher scrum, Geary signed a deal with Harvill Secker, finding himself in the same rarefied company as Karl Ove Knausgaard, Haruki Murakami and JM Coetzee.
All of which is to say that Geary knows a thing or two about a thing or two. Being familiar, presumably, with the humbleness of a working-class upbringing, the precarity of the émigré and the warmth of the creatively celebrated has served him well in writing that bristles with empathy and wisdom. Both qualities are immediately evident in his telling of the mixed fortunes of working-class Dublin kids Juno and Seán, later christened Legs Eleven, or Legs.
I say mixed fortunes, but even the moments of hope that occasionally brush against the pair are all too fleeting.
Juno and Legs are in primary school together: the former is spiky, spirited and unafraid, and part of a Dublin family headed by a mother run ragged trying to keep the entire family on the right side of functional, both emotionally and financially. Her father is a drinker; her sister left upon becoming pregnant at 16.
Legs is another prospect entirely, and when we first meet him, a teacher is tying ribbons into his blonde hair by way of mocking him. He is ceaselessly bullied by his classmates, and falls into a curious friendship with Juno. Both are starved of affection and love in different ways, and gravitate towards each other.
Life does not come at these youngsters easily, and the moments of upheaval come at a merciless pace. Far from offering a catalogue of ‘misery porn’ moments, Geary takes great care to give each awful moment due care and attention, to show how each horrific episode impacts the character emotionally, and how it erodes their chances of survival.
Finding themselves on the cusp of adulthood proper, Legs and Juno move into a small flat together, cobbling together ten-pence pieces for an inch or two of bathwater. Legs is showing great promise as an artist and — on the face of it at least — is feted by a small but influential coterie of Dubliners. After years of turmoil, a softer landing also seems in store for Juno as she finds work and friendship in a second-hand shop in Temple Bar.
Geary is adept at scene-setting and keeping a strong hand on the emotional pacing of the writing. He is also something of a master of evoking a solid and perfect sense of place: in this case, Dublin city before it befell Celtic-Tiger era gentrification.
Most of the usual working-class Ireland tropes are present and correct — the drinker father, the put-upon mother, the priests and nuns who abuse their outsized power — but Geary has impressively skewed each cliché. At one point, Juno’s father becomes a born-again Christian, whose efforts to stay on the straight and narrow are scuppered by young Juno herself. At school, there’s a nun with warm hands that Juno is strangely drawn to. A chaplain rebuffs the sexual advances of a young boy. A priest ultimately realises that whatever power he holds over two young schoolchildren is nothing in the face of their own might, and their own thirst for retaliation.
Juno Loves Legs is a story told mainly from the compelling young Juno’s perspective. Geary fully inhabits the character to offer a bold and beguiling voice. Occasionally, his own ear for the lyrical gets the better of him, and Juno is prone to the odd bout of poetic bluster: “His honeyed voice strummed lightly, as if from a well-crafted and ancient instrument,” she says of Father at one point. And later: “Never, ever mistake what is beautiful for beauty.”
Yet Geary’s naturally assured prose, mixed with the intrigue and charm of his two characters, make Juno Loves Legs a cut above the usual tale of Dublin poverty and woe. With evocative, elegiac Dublin as a backdrop, Geary has fashioned a second novel that is somehow tender, vicious and tense all at once. The reader will root for the young pair right until the end.
Fiction: Juno Loves Legs by Karl Geary
Harvill Secker, 304 pages, hardcover €19.60; e-book £8.99