Lost innocence in a forgotten Belfast
Fiction: The Friday Tree, Sophia Hillan, Ward River Press, €16.99, tpbk 314 pages
If we are to believe everything we read, these are dark times for the publishing industry, in Ireland as much as everywhere else. We've seen what happened to the music industry in the wake of the dawn of digital music. The hope is that eBooks won't have the same decimating effect on publishing houses.
If actions speak louder than words, the book industry is fighting back. Poolbeg Press has just published its first title under its new literary imprint, Ward River Press. The imprint was set up after the success of Jennifer Burke's The Secret Son, winner of TV3's Write A Bestseller competition. The positive response to that book prompted Poolbeg to create an imprint dedicated to original contemporary literary Irish Fiction.
Poolbeg's publisher Paula Campbell, who has probably launched more women writers than anyone else (Cathy Kelly, Marian Keyes etc all started with Poolbeg), says the new imprint will not be women's fiction and will not be genre led. It will simply be good stories, the best fiction she can find, written by men or women.
It's certainly a courageous step to be expanding when most publishing companies are tightening their belts. And it's heartening to see a new place for ambitious Irish authors to be published, particularly after the success of writers like Donal Ryan, published by Lilliput and Transworld, whose debut novel The Spinning Heart was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year.
The first offering from Ward River Press is The Friday Tree, the debut novel from Sophia Hillan. The book begins with a domestic scene of five-year-old Brigid and her 11-year-old brother Francis, looking for their bird Dicky, who has escaped from his cage. Brigid Arthur is our protagonist and we see the world through her young, uncomprehending eyes.
The story is set in Belfast over the course of a year and is a sort of coming-of-age story in that, after this year, Brigid and her brother are no longer innocents. The year is 1955, and Belfast feels like a small country town. Hillan brings the place carefully to life with tiny details, like the rarity of an outing for Brigid and Francis in their father's car, or the young lamp lighter who climbs up the lamp posts to make sure the gas light doesn't go out.
This is a post-war Ireland, one where death and loss are still fresh and familiar experiences. Brigid's aunt Laetitia's grief for her lost brother Laurie makes her terse and frightening to Brigid, while the next door neighbour Ned Silver's wicked behaviour stems from the early loss of his mother.
Belfast in 1955 is also a place where tensions are simmering and divisions are burgeoning. There is talk of rebels and confusing talk of news and politics and Ireland, which Brigid is not a fan of.
When Francis is hit on the head by a brick for walking down the wrong street in his Catholic-school uniform, the sectarian strife that would destroy the city 14 years on is shown in its sinister, nascent form, slowly maturing, and you can't help but think that by the time 1969 rolls around these young schoolboys would be fully-grown men, their antagonisms long since settled within them.
The book has plenty of mystery too and the child's perspective works well here as a device to keep us guessing. Why is there evidence of a person camping out near the Friday tree? Who is George Bailey? Is it an imaginary friend spawned by Brigid's love for the film It's A Wonderful Life or is it someone real? Hillan keeps the rumblings of rebels and sectarian strife bubbling underneath the story to create an undercurrent of anxiety in the reader.
Sometimes, too, Hillan's attempts to maintain the innocent voice of a five-year-old child strike a false chord, and feel contrived, for example, Brigid's ongoing confusion over her uncle's use of the phrase 'to see a man about a dog'. At other times, Brigid asks the sort of informed, leading questions of a much older person and even makes a barbed passing comment at one point.
These comments are beyond the average five-year-old and the illusion that our protagonist is a young child falls apart. That aside, Brigid is a complex character, who is mostly believable and Hillan doesn't spare her character the negative traits of a five-year-old, which makes her at times demanding, selfish, and lacking in compassion. This only makes the character all the more real.
While this is Hillan's debut novel, it is not her first publication. As the first woman associate director of Queen's University Belfast until 2003, she has published a host of academic books, including her most recent May, Lou & Cass: Jane Austen's Nieces In Ireland. She is, herself, a descendant of Jane Austen's sister. Born in Belfast, Hillan also worked at Carysfort College Dublin, with her former University tutor, the late Seamus Heaney.
In her acknowledgements, she writes that this novel has been a long process, which she started more than 30 years ago when she was awarded a fiction prize, coincidentally by Poolbeg's co-founder, the late David Marcus.
Hillan has certainly created a tale that draws you in, mixing domestic drama with national intrigue. She has cleverly chosen a period in Irish history that is deceptively settled and uneventful. By doing so, she has made it easy to refer back to the not so distant 1916 rising, while at the same time casting a shadow forward to show the beginnings of the horror that is yet to come.
It's a subject matter that feels all the more relevant now as we approach the centenary of 1916.
A good start for Ward River Press – and more to come!