Thursday 21 February 2019

The odd 'family': a pregnant schoolgirl, her gay best friend and the vicar

Young adult: A Good Hiding, Shirley-Anne McMillan, Atom Books, pbk, 256 pages, €8.99

Shirley-Anne McMillan: A breezy debut Young Adult novel
Shirley-Anne McMillan: A breezy debut Young Adult novel
A Good Hiding, Shirley-Anne McMillan
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

It's early winter, Belfast is cold and depressing, and schoolgirl Nollaig is in trouble. As in, she's both in trouble - her life is kind of a mess - and "in trouble", to use that possibly outmoded term for pregnant.

Nollaig is one of two alternating narrators of A Good Hiding, the debut Young Adult novel by Northern writer, artist and teacher Shirley-Anne McMillan. It tackles issues such as prejudice, sexuality and bullying with a nice lightness of touch.

Nollaig's mother is dead and her father is a violent, volatile drunk who abuses her physically and mentally. She has only one friend at school, though she likes learning well enough. And now, still a few months shy of 16, Nollaig is going to be a parent.

Abortion isn't an option; she can't afford to travel to England. She's having this baby, then, but Nollaig is terrified of the pair of them being separated and thrown into care homes. So she comes up with a plan.

After a scary run-in with a mugger, she makes it to St Anthony's, a little-used church, where Nollaig intends to hide-out for a few months: either until the baby is born, or she turns 16 and the State can't put her in care.

Is it a good plan? No, it's a terrible one, but what do you expect? She's only 15. Nollaig sneaks in the back door, finds her way to a basement room that's just-about liveable, then contacts her best friend Stephen for food and aid.

He's a nice kid, a wannabe artist, gay, also 15. Stephen has just been dumped by his stuck-up boyfriend and is having one of the worst weeks of his life. But Nollaig needs his help and she's his friend, so what can you do?

He brings her food - somewhat more nutritious than the biscuits she'd been subsisting on - and tries to convince her to get adult help. She refuses. Then, in an office, they find a pink bra. Convinced that the local vicar Brian is cheating on his wife, they reluctantly blackmail him into letting Nollaig hide out in the basement until she reaches 16.

Brian, a decent sort of man, even more reluctantly agrees. He brings food and other things for Nollaig. And while Stephen is very hostile towards religion and the religious - for reasons that will later become clear - the three of them form an odd family unit of sorts. But it can't last…

There's a lot to admire in A Good Hiding (including that clever pun in the title, given that both Nollaig and Stephen have been physically assaulted). I didn't like Nollaig all the time - she's very chippy when she wants to be - but I'm not sure you're meant to unconditionally "like" her anyway; she's a three-dimensional character, presented warts and all.

And I think it'll appeal very much to the target audience, ie young people, say early teens to twentysomethings.

The book speaks to them about the type of things which are most important at that age: finding your way in the world, learning how to deal with the hassles and strife of life, enjoying the freedom of youth without going off the rails, totally and self-destructively.

Most of all, I felt, it's about the importance of being true to yourself. These characters are hiding something from the world. Nollaig, of course, is pregnant. The well-meaning school principal asks Stephen not to act quite so "different" from all the other boys. Even Brian, we discover, has a secret, and keeping it is burning him up inside.

To thine own self be true - after all, what else is there if not your "self"? A commendable message, delivered without finger-wagging, in a brisk and breezy novel that, despite the heavy subject matter, had me laughing aloud more than once.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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