Saturday 25 November 2017

Review: New Town Soul by Dermot Bolger

Little Island, €9.35

Angela M Cornyn

A derelict house in the affluent suburb of Blackrock on Dublin's southside, three impressionable teenagers and a strange old man are the stuff of Dermot Bolger's latest novel New Town Soul, a supernatural thriller for young adults.

Bolger, a prolific and gifted writer, breaks new ground with this novel, marking as it does his first foray into young-adult fiction. However, it will have wide appeal and does not belong exclusively in the young-adult genre, such is the superb quality of its writing, insights and page-turner plot.

The old, dilapidated house at the end of Castledawson Avenue and its unexpected inhabitant, an elderly, sick man who seems to have been around forever, become the focal point of the story which unravels for the three teens Shane, Joey and Geraldine. The story hinges on secrets, and the willingness to explore self, relationships, life issues and familiar surroundings.

As one might expect with teenagers, issues of friendship and love are to the fore. The reckless and, at times, strange Shane becomes Joey's new best friend, crowding him out like his shadow almost. Joey pines for Geraldine, but, alas, it is a case of unrequited love, for Geraldine refuses to have anything to do with him while Shane is around. Maybe she has reason to feel uneasy around Shane? Is he weaving a web of evil around them? What are they hiding from Joey? The answers are to be found in the eerie, dark house.

The old man has secrets aplenty to share with his uninvited visitors, but these secrets come at a very high price, which demands one to gamble or not with one's soul. If a soul is snatched, then a person becomes "a changeling, someone forced to be part of a chain, after some person or power has snatched their soul", and is condemned to an everlasting limbo.

So, beware "whatever you do in life, never let anyone snatch your soul". How does someone snatch a soul? "By making a pact with you; by promising you your heart's most hidden desire ... Keep your soul safe ... Once it is stolen, it can never truly be your own again."

New Town Soul is a ghostly thriller situated in the real world of contemporary teenage experience in Ireland. What is striking about the novel is how well the author is clued in to teenagers and their preoccupations. He shines a reflective torch on the dark side of the teenage psyche navigating its way through the intensity of the teen years. The innocence of youth, its energy to explore, coupled with its burgeoning awakening to the seriously challenging subjects of loneliness, death and immortality, take pride of place alongside the mundane, everyday survival issues of the need to conform and avoid being bullied. "Survival in that school wasn't about being good, it was about not standing out. You needed to always wear the same clothes as everyone else, never express an original thought..."

In addition, Bolger casts a keen, sardonic eye on the posh environs of Blackrock, as he observes its well-heeled denizens. "Neighbours ... reversed into designated parking spaces, and emerged from BMWs and SUVs with designer-label shopping bags from the Frascati Centre. Sometimes there were teenagers in tow in Ugg boots and Abercrombie hoodies, and with teeth so perfect that the kids looked like they had been enrolled for orthodontic treatment while still in the womb."

Bolger takes the reader on a rollercoaster of battles with spirits, heaps of suspense, emotional turmoil and the faintest touch of normality. In the epilogue, the reader is catapulted back to earth with a bump as loose ends are tied up neatly and quickly. Peace of mind and an imminent fresh start appear possible as ghosts have been finally laid to rest.

New Town Soul is mysterious and, at times, disturbing even, but a compulsive read.

Sunday Independent

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