Having recently read another novel without realising it was of the gothic genre, I think I’ve gone and done it again, this time, a contemporary Belfast gothic novel, because right from the first chapter, there is the overwhelming sense of something sinister going to happen, and it’s not the series of summer fires that are plaguing the city though they are equally troubling. I discovered having finished the book that Jan Carson is also a fan of absurdist fiction. Another clue.
In that first chapter we meet a father, Jonathan, who has a strange perception of his baby daughter, who he is caring for alone. He desperately wants to care for her, but he feels that part of his role in doing that is to remove the aspect of her that she has inherited from her mother, who he believes is a siren.
His own childhood was one of being provided for, but unloved, his parents (who never wanted children or grandchildren) abandoning him at the age of 16 to a boarding school, leaving the country. He becomes a Doctor, and of no surprise, lacks any form of empathy.
We meet Sammy, also a father, an ex loyalist paramilitary, who is becoming increasingly anxious, having reason to suspect that his son Mark, who lives in their attic and rarely comes out, may be involved in sinister activities, fearing he has inherited his own thirst for violence, a tendency he had no control over in youth and even today, has to quell the feeling inside.
I found the depictions of both these men terrifying, both are planning some kind of intervention and up until the last pages, we can’t quite believe that they may follow through, and they too wrestle with their instinct and question, whether they ought to proceed.
Then there is the background of a hot summer and the approach of the Orange parades of the Eleventh Night on every 12th of July, an Ulster Protestant tradition where large, towering bonfires are lit, accompanied by street parties and loyalist marching bands.
The bonfires are lit to celebrate (1688) the victory of Protestant King William (Billy) of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. – Wikipedia
When the rain finally arrives, people begin to smile, there are fewer angry people on the streets, they no longer have the numbers for a decent riot, the air of festivity is extinguished. Protesting soon makes way for the football season.
This is how it has been in Belfast every summer since the Agreement. The same hot anger rises at the end of June and and goes stamping up and down the little streets. Stamping and shouting and raising Cain all the way through July until, by August’s end, the energy’s gone right out of it.
My Truth is Not Your Truth
And the various versions and perceptions of truth and history that exist, depending on who is doing the telling, where they live, what day it is, demonstrated in this opening chapter This is Belfast.
This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.
Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates and second names. In this city names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other. It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it. Even now, sixteen years after the Troubles, it is much safer to stand back and say with conviction, ‘It all looks the same to me.’
And following this are two paragraphs, one that begins with ‘The Troubles are over now’ and the other begins with ‘The Troubles have only just begun.’
Jonathan (Dr Murray) is obsessed with silencing his daughter, and even employs a deaf nanny to look after her. She is a loving, nurturing soul, providing one of the few notes of relief in an otherwise tense narrative, as these men ponder their responsibility as fathers and fear of what their children may become.
There is a third brief narrative, an omniscient voice that shares the story of a few of the Unfortunate Children of Belfast, children of parents who belong to a support group, that Jonathan attends once, they are children born with deformities and powers and it is here, that I realise there is an element of magic realism in this tale, that perhaps his perception of his daughter as a siren isn’t an aspect of his own mental health problem.
The novel is a blend of politically charged social and magic realism, though it feels realistic in its reading; dealing with the trauma of legacy’s, a parent’s legacy to a child and the community’s complicated legacy of the political troubles of Northern Ireland. It is set in East Belfast, where the author lives and from listening to the interview, I learn that she is an accomplished eavesdropper, that many of the words in these pages have been inspired by overheard conversations.
On Developing Empathy for Those Living Segregated Lives
Interested to understand the motivation behind the novel, I listened to an excellent interview with Nicky Bull in which she shares something of her role as a community arts facilitator and the role this can play in healing rifts, bringing people together, using the creative process to help develop empathy, she talks about the ability of storytelling to help develop this.
The community arts sector in Northern Ireland has played a huge role in the peace and reconciliation process. Primarily it brings people from both communities together into a shared space but I also think it has also taught people soft skills that have been missing from Northern Irish culture.
It’s very, very hard for people here to practice empathy because quite often we grow up segregated, so how are you supposed to understand what life is like if you don’t have any friends who aren’t from the same background as you, the skill system is still largely segregated,and government housing and things.
So these conversations around learning how to empathise, which I think the creative act, particularly writing fiction, you’re putting yourself in the shoes of another character, even when you read, it’s an act of empathy, those skills can be taught and then transferred into the social realms that we’re working in Northern Ireland at the moment, that people can imagine a life that isn’t theirs, it’s much more difficult to hate and to segregate when you have the ability to empathise with other people.
It’s an incredible and deeply disturbing novel, yet despite the discomfort I learned a lot from reading it and especially from taking the opportunity to listen to the author speak, that helped me understand the motivation behind it and that incredible candour around the very real problem of how the creation of segregated community’s causes a lack empathy and how the creative arts can help provide a practical humanist solution.
It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and #ReadingIrelandMonth21, have you read a good Irish book this month?