Sunday 21 January 2018

Review: The House of Slamming Doors by Mark Macauley

Lilliput Press, €12.99

Rosita Sweetman

THE House of Slamming Doors by Mark Macauley comes with congratulatory words from some heavy-hitters, including legendary film director John Boorman, a friend of the author, who describes Macauley's Big House family, marooned in mid-Sixties Ireland, as "the funniest, most beguiling, cruelly dysfunctional family ever".


To quote Tolstoy's famous aphorism: "Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Macauley's brand spanking new, angry voice, tells the Big House story with a surprising twist, and from the vantage point of 13-year-old, seriously unhappy Justin, the youngest member of said dysfunctional family, who, in the fateful year in question -- 1963 -- discovers love, loss, killing, and the true nature of his parentage, all plot lines delivering into a savage final denouement.

The family depicted in The House of Slamming Doors consists of Bobby, the pater familias, permanently positioned on the edge of exploding. Mother, who was swept off her (very posh) English Protestant feet by the Catholic, "wild colonial boy", Bobby, much to the chagrin of her aristocratic family, and brought back to The Hall, the cold, boggy, Big House on the Wicklow/ Kildare borders.

There are Justin's two older sisters, Emma and Lucy, the first pretty and prim, the second much given to beatnik slang, both attempting to keep "the parentals" under some kind of control, both failing.

Having ensconced her three children safely in English boarding schools, and grown bored with being Lady of the Manor dispensing presents at Christmas, and ladylike concern for the welfare of The Hall's myriad staff and their families all year round, Mother has taken (ever so politely) to the bottle, and (not so politely) to a rekindled affaire with a sports car driving, mysterious English "gentleman".

As the book opens, the family, plus the numerous local staff (25 in all), are gathered in The Hall, to watch on two televisions (one has dickey sound, the other has dickey visuals) the arrival of JFK (or JF bloody K as Justin likes to call him) on Irish soil.

The women (servants and served) swoon. Justin feels jealous, his childhood friend Annie, the witty and pretty daughter of one of his father's top farm hands, whom his 13-year-old self is busy falling in love with, joins the chorus, if only to wind him up.

And, it's his birthday, though no one except Annie has remembered. The irascible father, furious at not being informed it was his son's birthday (a neat reversal of responsibility here!) orders champagne, and Mama, under its delightfully bubbling influence, recalls happier days hob-nobbing with the Kennedy family. (Yes, she is that posh).

But Justin's birth is problematic in other ways, though his troubled young self has no idea why. Why does his father hate him so? Why does the "lumbering, hairy old bollicks" give him such a hard time? Why does he call him "you little bollicks" when he's angry, and "old cock" ("as if I was married to a hen") when he's feeling more mellow?

His sisters do their best, but only young Annie can soothe his on-fire soul, and now his impossible father has decreed, out of the blue, that "the children of servants" are no longer welcome at The Hall.

Justin, afraid he is going to explode himself, "acts out" as the psychologists say; giving the pigeons in the forest what for with his shotgun, nicking money from the glove pocket of his father's Jaguar, under the slobbering gaze, and growls, of the father's "only true friend" Rottweiler, Cromwell.

It is when, on the stolen loot, he and Annie head for Dublin, the cinema, and tea at the Shelbourne, that they stumble, or almost stumble, on why things at home are not perhaps quite what they should be.

Summer turns to autumn and Justin has to return to his much-hated English boarding school where he is now the "bog man", the butt of bully-boy Adam's anti-Irish witticisms, and where he waits, despairingly, for a letter from Annie, unaware that his blundering Papa has already engineered the dispatch of Annie's father, and family, from the estate -- having discovered Annie's flouting of his no communication/no contact rules.

Mother, in a phone call to Justin at school, lets the cat out of the bag and next thing our troubled 13-year-old hero is racing back from England, with murder on his mind.

It would take away from the power of the book's ending to tell you exactly what happens, or what Mother's secret, the secret of Justin's birth, really is. Let's just say his anger and frustration turn out to be more than justified.

It's the authenticity of the author's understanding of what it's like to be a powerless and troubled 13-year-old boy that delivers here; coupled with some neat third-person forays showing the action from a wider angle.

This is, amazingly, the 54-year-old Mark Macauley's first novel. His blurb says he's a documentary filmmaker, screenwriter and "former night club owner". Here's hoping The House of Slamming Doors flags the start of a whole new, stellar career.

Sunday Independent

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