Music Love Drugs War: Teenage kicks in the shadow of the Troubles
Music Love Drugs War
Fig Tree, paperback, 273 pages, €16
In many ways the young adults in Geraldine Quigley's debut novel are familiar; they get drunk, take drugs, obsess about music, navigate their first love affairs and look upon their parents with benign disdain. But because it's 1981 and these young adults live in Derry, they are marked. Their normality includes extremes - violence, fear, PTSD, ritual humiliation and intense claustrophobia. They're an ordinary bunch in a broken society and by focusing on both the ordinariness and the brokenness, Quigley finds the particularity of her story.
Her cast of characters is large. There is no single protagonist, rather the narrative circles around an expansive group of friends in their late teens and early twenties who hang out in the Cave, a "grubby and obscure" bar, "somewhere no questions were asked".
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Liz, one of the core members of the group, would have been an obvious choice for a main character. In her last year of school, she's academic, full of untapped ambition and ambivalent feelings about her older boyfriend, Kevin, who is scarred by previous paramilitary activity and the interrogations that followed. But Quigley resists a single point of view and instead opts for multiple perspectives.
Liz's brother, Paddy, and his friend, Christy - another potential protagonist - get involved in the riots around the hunger strikes but more impulsively than consciously. Even those on the periphery of the gang come from Catholic backgrounds but music - Dexys, Joy Division - is more of a unifier than politics, until one of the friends is shot dead by the British army. The killing changes Christy and Paddy; their anger turns to rage and they join the IRA.
Like the characters, the backdrop of Music Love Drugs War is familiar - as much from films as from novels such as Paul McVeigh's The Good Son and Anna Burns' recent Booker Prize-winning Milkman. But though the Troubles and its streetscapes have been depicted before, Quigley's clear, descriptive prose captures the physical exertion of rioting and the hyper alertness of a young man being searched - as well as the soldier doing the searching - so that these scenes feel vivid and authentic.
Intimate with her subject matter, Quigley was born in Derry in 1964, the youngest of 11 children, and began writing in her late forties. Her novel differentiates itself by tracking the impact of the Troubles on a group, and the group feels like a genuine collective, its members on the cusp of adulthood, directionless or groping towards self-awareness, neither too good nor too bad. But numerous characters are introduced in the first chapter and it takes time to figure out who is significant. Meanwhile, the shifting points of view are dislocating. The multiple perspectives fracture the narrative and ultimately dilute its tension and emotional weight.
The driving question is: who will get out and who will remain trapped - physically or psychologically or both? But Quigley goes inside the heads of so many of her characters that the story can get buried in disparity. Christy and Liz are underused, as is the affinity between them. There's too much exposition and a late-in-the-day twist feels anticlimactic.
There are plenty of powerful moments however, and the novel is at its strongest when it juxtaposes the warped realities of Troubles-era Northern Ireland with the everyday: a huddle of women on their way home from bingo start running when shots are fired; a quaint scene in which Kevin gives Liz an Easter egg is followed by a scene in the Cave where Paddy and Christy make a sudden entry, fleeing "the Brits".
"They're using you, man... you're cannon fodder," one of the group tells them, foreshadowing the death that's to come and the difficult decisions the young men will have to make.
Prior to their initiation into the IRA, Christy and Paddy, about to swear allegiance, wait in a child's bedroom where there are toys and Holly Hobbie bed sheets. The details - the knickerless doll with its hard plastic bottom - are spot on and work on a symbolic level: politics has infiltrated and violated the domestic sphere.
Sinister, sad and utterly believable, the scene showcases what Quigley does best, reflecting how the conflict is rupturing childhood and how, in the midst of such turmoil, so many young people - people like the characters in the novel - will be prevented from properly coming of age.