Wednesday 25 April 2018

Review: Fiction: Unspoken by Gerard Stembridge

Old Street, €13.99

Gerry Stembridge is an outstanding, if somewhat unacknowledged, Irish artist.

The lack of acknowledgement may have something to do with his versatility -- he has published two novels; directed for theatre and cinema; written screenplays (Ordinary Decent Criminal, starring Kevin Spacey, and Nora, Pat Murphy's film about Nora Barnacle); and created, with the late Dermot Morgan, the hilarious radio satire Scrap Saturday.

Most novelists focus their storytelling on the life of a single hero. Not Stembridge. The 433 pages of Unspoken describe the lives not just of five children born in Limerick on June 17 1959, but of their mothers, fathers and siblings; the careers of their Fianna Fail leaders locally (Donogh O'Malley) and nationally (Eamon de Valera); of a variety of people working in the newly-founded RTE TV service, including Gavin Bloom, a floor manager reminiscent of Charlie Roberts, who did that job on the Late Late Show; and -- not to be mean with the material -- the entire decade of social change that the 1960s embodied, Eurovision Song Contest and all.

The Limerick social spectrum is wide. The central family, the Strongs, may not be dirt-poor but the father, Fonsie, is certainly dirty: he makes his living heaving bags of coal. In the waiting-room of the maternity hospital, he self-consciously hides his grimy hands from the other fathers-to-be: Brendan Barry, a hotel manager; Cormac Kiely, an architect; George Collopy, a religious maniac who works as a traveller for Mattersons Meats; and Michael Liston, a planning expert.

Liston is livid: he hates his wife and suspects her pregnancy is deliberately designed to prevent him taking up a job in the Department of Industry and Commerce in Dublin. He has just got a call "strictly on the QT from a high-up in the department... things were about to change at last... Dev was being moved on, economic regeneration could begin, everything was going to loosen up, especially in the whole area of re-zoning and urban planning".

Dev is indeed being moved on -- June 17 1959 is polling-day in the presidential election. Stembridge dares to imagine how the ancient leader feels and what he fails to see as the lamps are lit in his parlour: "Eamon liked the golden scrim that filled his old eyes like mist on a summer dawn." He also likes the coconut cream biscuits he gets with his tea: the sound of his wife Sinead biting into one "made him crave the elastic sweetness of mallow in his mouth".

Dev's attitude to the changes proposed by "Kenneth" (Ken Whitaker) and "Sean" (Lemass) is hardly progressive. The emigrants that economic expansion will tempt back to Ireland "might well be... lost already, culturally, morally; no longer Irish".

This insularity is in stark contrast to the sophistication of Dom, the Donogh O'Malley character. Dom is a boyo and a bit of a bowsy. A good part of his effort in the novel is devoted to getting off a drink-driving charge. The prosecuting guard won't play ball, so with the help of a Senior Counsel and the connivance of a judge, the case is heard more or less in private, or as it were, "after hours".

Dom's sexual tastes are superior to those of his Fianna Fail colleagues: for them there is "no rustle of silk negligée draped on a chaise longue. More like a crotch rub in the kitchenette of a two-room flat in Phibsborough, beer spilt down a blouse, then pawed at in pretend apology".

Dom envies Charlie Haughey (right), identified here only as "the Lizard son-in-law". Marrying "the boss's daughter" has "worked out well": he's a minister, whereas Dom is only a Parliamentary Secretary. Dom wants to scream at the new Taoiseach Sean Lemass, why am I not in "the f**kin' Jaysus cabinet?"

Anyone interested in Irish political history will find Dom and Dev's interior monologues utterly fascinating. But the fascination rather overshadows the lives of the lesser characters. This is a pity because much of what happens to them is culturally interesting.

For instance, Francis Strong, the son of Fonsie the coalman, develops a passion for Enid Blyton and begins to speak like her characters. Cormac Kiely, the architect, re-designs a Limerick church in line with Vatican Council regulations, so that a child crying in the gallery can't be heard -- a striking symbol of the coming clerical sex-abuse scandals. Brendan Barry, the hotel manager, turns out to be gay and has an affair with Gavin the RTE floor manager.

There is much else besides, including a fascinating description of the filming of Insurrection, Hugh Leonard's commemoration of the 1916 Rising, and a biting portrayal of the journalist John Healy (here called Hanley): "a self-obsessed, self-important, self-righteous, self-loathing peasant intellectual".

Two criticisms have to be made of Unspoken. The first is that the book rambles -- some scenes are badly in need of the blue pencil. The second is that the stories of most of the characters are not so much ended as abandoned. But this fault may prove to be a virtue since the only way to correct it is to write a sequel, or sequels, covering the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s. If future volumes are as curious and intriguing as this one, they will be worth the wait.

Brian Lynch is a novelist, poet and screenwriter

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