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McGuinness's first novel unique in Irish fiction

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This is Frank McGuinness's first novel, but he already has a great history on the stage and in the cinema. His 1982 play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme marked an important step forward in nationalist sympathy for the Protestants slaughtered in World War I.

He has also written a Broadway hit, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, and Meryl Streep starred in his film adaptation of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa.

Arimathea is set in 1950. It tells the story of an Italian painter, Gianni, who comes to Donegal to paint the Stations of the Cross for Father Simon O'Hagen.

In the first chapter Father O'Hagen arrives at the home of Margaret O'Donovan to ask her a favour – but really he's making her an offer she can't refuse: Gianni is coming to stay. No two ways about it.

Margaret bends the knee. So does her husband, Malachy, the local blacksmith. They're poor people, but they happen to have inherited a house, which is now empty.

There are nine chapters in the book. Each of the first six is named after a character and told in his or her voice. We don't get inside Gianni's head until chapter seven – he may be the central character but we see him in a series of sweeping search-lights.

McGuinness, a master ventriloquist, begins with Euni, the O'Donovans' pre-teen daughter. "Custard and jelly and a punch in the belly" is her favourite joke, and it reflects accurately the sweetness and violence of her world.

For instance, both her mother and father are sexually attracted to Gianni. And Fr O'Hagen loves her mother – he sees Margaret as Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden. But he keeps his vow of celibacy. His mother, though, thinks: "His chastity stinks. And I want grandchildren." So she offers to pay a Protestant girl to have sex with him.

Then there is a mad old woman who wants to cut the artist's throat. She blames all Italians, and Mussolini in particular, for the deaths of her two nephews in the war.

Arimathea is not an everyday story of countryfolk.

Gianni himself has witnessed a lot of madness back in Italy "where the townlands were bathed with the blood of all races". Like Father O'Hagen, Gianni is obsessed with the idea of his mother as Eve, devoured by the serpent of death.

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But for him "there is no hope, there is only hell, and all faith, all fables are only means to guide us into nothingness through horrendous war".

This is a complex, troubled, even tormented book. It remains to be seen if will prove to be popular, but it can already be said that there is nothing like it in the history of Irish fiction.

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