In Alix O’Neill’s memoir, 1990s Belfast appears as a bedraggled, sweaty, always slightly drunk secondary character. One of the most enjoyable chapters (entitled ‘The Cres’) is an account of O’Neill’s teenage drinking holes, most notably the ‘legendary’ Sandy Row Crescent bar. It was “a place where sectarianism was checked in with your coat at the front door”:“Local kids and affluent Protestants and Catholics from the suburbs got drunk together, we retched together, squeezed one another’s body parts on the dancefloor rhythmically to Show Me Heaven. We were a shining example of cross-community spirit, a rejection of the tribalism that had dominated our city for too long. Also, the Cres was the only pub that let in underage drinkers and served 70p shots.”
It’s a visceral, sweaty picture, with wood shavings and regurgitated alcopops on the floor and “bodies of the fallen piled up at the bottom of the staircase like a scene from Dante’s Inferno”.
After one messy night at a school formal, her mother (referred to as Mummy) takes O’Neill and her sister out for a fish supper. “Well, girls,” she tells them, “I have a wee bit of news for you. I’m adopted.”
But that’s getting ahead of the story. To begin at the beginning: The Troubles With Us is the sprawling tale of O’Neill’s family, a motley crew of eccentrics who you will quickly grow to love.
Born in 1983, O’Neill grew up in a changing Belfast. Her story leads us through many typical growing up experiences — first kisses, first hangovers, making and breaking friendships — but there is also ‘local flavour’. “I met a man tonight in the bar,” she tells her mother one evening after returning from her part-time job. “I think he wants to blow the place up”. “Is that right?” her mother replies before returning to watch The Fugitive. “Ach, doesn’t your heart just go out to that Dr Richard Kimble?”
True to its marketing (‘Derry Girls meets Philomena’), there are nonplussed quips about bombs, and many musings on how exactly to define the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant.
“Ach, it was only a wee bomb in a Lidl bag,” O’Neill says, by way of reassurance, to a colleague evacuated from a London Underground station after the 2017 Parsons Green explosion.
Her voice is so immediately likeable, her sense of humour infectious, you get the feeling you would love to have a drink with her.
Her family, especially her mother’s side, is a cast of large characters. After O’Neill’s grandmother died, Mummy took up the burden of care, cooking for her family (including her adult siblings still living under one roof) every day. O’Neill makes you feel incredibly fond, and at times frustrated, with all of them, and she manages to pull off the difficult task of conveying a whole set of family dynamics — their personalities, their complicated histories and their often fraught relationships — in concise yet broad, brushstrokes.
Other background, non-familial, characters are sketched out equally brilliantly, from Mummy’s best friend Moira, to Dan the university crush and the mysterious Yer Man Jamie. The physical space where the story takes place is just as important, however, from the Andytown manse house where she lived from the age of seven to the ‘middle-class suburbia’ her parents moved to near Stormont. “The seat of unionist oppression, Anne!” Moira says.
The Troubles With Us is, on the surface, O’Neill’s own coming-of-age story. We see the world through her eyes, and follow her as she grows up learning about herself, her family, her politics and her identity. But it’s also Mummy’s story, or at least O’Neill’s journey of discovery about her mother. Though it’s lightly done, she sketches a portrait of their complicated relationship, made more complex yet understandable through the revelations that unfold. To give more details would be a spoiler and, besides, it doesn’t feel like a reviewer’s story to tell.
If there’s one thing that The Troubles With Us gets across, it’s the intricate nature of family secrets. Being party to them is a burden; knowing when to reveal them is complicated; having them revealed to you can be traumatic. Mummy is an enigma, equal parts strong and brittle and unfathomable, and she’s the glue that holds this story, and the family, together.
It’s not for nothing that the final dedication reads: “Thank you for the unperforated teeth, your story to share — and everything else”.
It was a joy to spend time in O’Neill’s world, and the irresistible sense of fun she sparked could have led me on to read many more stories about her family life. The Troubles With Us is an account of a family going through a life with experiences both wonderfully universal and also very, very specific, which is equal parts hilarious, moving, and compelling.
Memoir: The Troubles With Us by Alix O’Neill
Fourth Estate, 304 pages, hardcover €14.99; e-book £8.99