Saturday 16 December 2017

Yes, yes, yes Minister

Alan Shatter's novel 'Laura' may have one steamy passage, but it has more to do with a dramatic custody battle

Leinster love affair: Alan Shatter's 'Laura' includes a romp in Leinster House
Leinster love affair: Alan Shatter's 'Laura' includes a romp in Leinster House
Alan Shatter's 'Laura'
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

It was, without a doubt, one of the more startling headlines of the year. Two months ago, under the banner headline '50 SHADES OF SHATTER', The Herald revealed that a novel written by Justice Minister Alan Shatter over 20 years ago had now been referred to the Censorship Office.

The novel, titled Laura, was described – with understandable glee – as "raunchy" and "steamy", and one passage in particular which involved two of the characters having sex in Leinster House was immediately reprinted in newspapers and on websites and read aloud with great amusement on the airwaves.

Such was the level of public interest in Laura – after all, it's not every Justice Minister who pens a bodice-ripper – that Poolbeg decided to reprint the book which was first published in 1989, with the agreement of its author.

And so it's back on the bookshelves, and destined perhaps to top the extremely respectable 20,000 sales of its original print-run.

After all, the plot sounds juicy indeed: Colette James, a young, naive woman is left abandoned by heartless womanising TD Seán Brannigan after she becomes pregnant, and she gives up their newborn daughter Laura for adoption.

She is placed in the home of childless couple John and Jenny Masterson, whose happiness is complete – until they discover to their horror that Laura's birth mother has changed her mind and wants her back.

However, anyone buying Laura with the expectation of being transfixed by sex scenes of such perversion and athleticism that would bring tears of pride to the eyes of the original Fifty Shades writer, EL James, will be quite crestfallen.

For apart from the one well-flagged section in which Colette and Séan do the business for the first time in the TD's office in Leinster House, there is precious little romping in Laura.

The intense interest in this bit of the book stems not from its sparkling prose, but from the knowledge that it was the serious-minded Alan Shatter who penned phrases like "She gasped again as he pulled himself free of her and overflowed on her slender body". (A clear case of 'yes, yes, yes minister', surely).

But of course, Shatter wasn't a member of the Cabinet when he wrote this book in 1989.

He was a lowly opposition deputy for Dublin South, Fine Gael's spokesman on the environment. But he was also a solicitor and a specialist in Family Law.

Therefore in Laura he wrote about what he knew best – which meant (thankfully) that his knowledge was more legal than carnal.

Thus the novel doesn't focus so much on the various relationships between the two couples, as on the drama surrounding the battle for custody of the baby.

Despite the author's protestations that the heroic legal-eagle Paul Galloway isn't based on himself, it may be a case of Alan doth protest too much. In Laura, Galloway is a 35-year-old solicitor, married with two children. At the time of publication, Alan was 38, married with two children.

The night before the custody case began, Paul Galloway had a sleepless night. "There was a devastating finality about the decision made by a court when determining such disputes."

Last week on Today FMs Ray D'Arcy Show, Shatter talked about his own time working on custody cases.

"These cases were always very traumatic, you were always conscious as a lawyer that what you did, you had to do with enormous care, because it would have profound consequences, not just for the adopters and the biological mother ultimately, but for the child," he said.

The parallels are unmistakable, and undoubtedly the chapters involving the court battle are the strongest in this novel, with insightful descriptions of the arguments and legal tactics employed by both sides to claim the child as their own.

And perhaps it is this which has kept this novel from appearing dated – not every book could survive a reprint from 24 years ago without seeming to be from another era.

For while technologies and politics may change constantly, the sad fact of custody tug-of-wars between two desperate parties still unfold behind closed court doors every day.

But another fun thing to do with Laura is to try and identify if any of the other characters are based on real-life figures. Retired Supreme Court judge (and friend of the author) Justice Catherine McGuinness claimed recently that the two – undeniably feisty – female barristers in the book were fashioned on her and former President Mary Robinson.

Unsurprisingly, nobody has come forward to claim that the philandering politician is based on them.

But by and large the main characters –a bit like the sex scenes – are all a bit perfunctory and lacking depth. Promising sub-plots fizzle out, and much of the non-court dialogue is flat and unoriginal.

This is more wig-lit than chick-lit, no doubt about it. However if, as he has revealed, Alan Shatter writes a new novel and bases it on what he knows well now – the intrigues and seductions of life in government – then he will definitely have a bestseller on his hands.

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