Monday 19 November 2018

Why every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Sile McArdle

According to Luke Gerard Stembridge Penguin, ?14.99 ONE of the best things about playwright Gerry Stembridge's first novel, According to Luke, is that he depicts an Ireland in which the real-life names of places, people, events and products are mentioned frequently - but it doesn't seem as if he's name-dropping.

This artless canvas greatly enhances the book, particularly for anyone who knows Dublin. It provides a steady backdrop for the unsteady disintegration of the Reids, a privileged family from D6W.

One parent will recover, one will not. Two children will recover, one will not. Yet another - the eponymous Luke - has a long way to go before recovery is even an option.

Frank Reid is a barrister and Fianna Fail stalwart. His wife Norma is ministerial-wife material made flesh, a formidable woman who believes that, no matter how bad the crisis, the hall table must always be polished.

Stembridge also gives us a taste of some real-life issues of the early Eighties which came home to roost over the next two decades - planning corruption, political sleaze, "accidental" meetings in Midlands pubs, favours and favourites - and tax evasion.

When in 2004 affluent Frank is outed by the Revenue, his family (Frank and Norma and their children, Judy, Luke, Ruth and Matthew) discover to varying degrees that - whatever the source - once shame and guilt stretch out their bony arms to embrace you, there can never again be any such thing as business as usual.

Although Luke is the main character, he is at times eclipsed by the others as their stories gather momentum.

Take Norma, the wife and mother who is capable of great honesty and loyalty - but not so much love any more. When Frank's post-disgrace drinking spirals, her desperate effort to control him (and herself) during a flight to New York is one of this book's best scenes.

As is the reaction of Frank, when offered an olive branch by neighbours after Matthew plays a blinder in a school play. Frank reverts to hail-fellow-well-met type immediately and alienates them all over again. Pure pathos.

Stembridge uses humour in his portrait of cousin Barry (a perma-tanned sex-machine with a bad nose job) who sticks out like a sore thumb at Norma Reid's Delia Smith-themed Christmas dinner.

As Luke's ill-at-ease crusade to make his father pay for Ireland's social inequities gathers momentum, he contacts his Mayo cousin - literally the poor relation - to rekindle the teenage friendship forged during summers in their Kerry holiday homes.

Luke needs Barry for the first stage of battle, and if his perfectionist mother gets annoyed at his cousin's reappearance, so much the better.

According to Luke has its purely funny moments, too. One moment which will make you smile is when Luke's father catches his 15-year-old son naked with a French girl in Kerry during a late-night Fianna Fail drink-in. A certain gravelly voiced Taoiseach puts his head round the bedroom door and "one quiet, spontaneous, possibly admiring word escaped his lips."

Can't you just see it?

But was that teenage disgrace (rather than his father's ?4m tax humiliation) the real reason Luke wanted to punish his father so much? Had the grown-up Luke Reid harboured that grudge for half his life? Whatever its roots, Luke's rejection of his parents and his own isolated self-loathing makes it impossible for the family to regroup as a unit.

According to Luke follows a family into its darkest corners, but it is still an enjoyable, concise read. (My one minor criticism is that I found the constant theatrical references superfluous and, in a couple of instances, quite patronising.)

Ironically, it is selfish-but-straight cousin Barry - the oddest of them all on the surface - who finds himself moving towards the best chance of normality and happiness . . . and he wasn't even trying.

The others, with their complicated, skewed motives and emotions, simply tried too hard. Perhaps that's why they failed.

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top