Set in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’, in the mid 1970’s, Trespasses began with what seemed like a chance encounter, when a known barrister, Michael Agnew, a married man of the opposite faith, a Protestant, known to provide legal defence to IRA members; a man who had known Cushla’s father, sat at the bar, while she was serving, engaging her in stilted conversation.
There are various types that frequent the pub, that one ought to be wary of, an aura of menace seems never far away. This man Michael asks her questions, coming across initially, to this reader, as a suspicious character. Yet, there is a chemistry between the two.
Cushla, 26 years old, is a teacher of primary school aged children and helps her brother in the family owned bar some evenings due to the deterioration of their mother into alcoholism. Much of her spare time is spent caring for her mother, trying to prevent something more than drunkenness from occurring.
Absent Father, Alcoholic Mother, A Rescuer Desires Love
We know the father has passed on, though we know little of the relationship dynamic he brought to the family, except that he was regarded as having married beneath him. He was a Lavery, a prominent family name. His wife, Cushla’s mother Gina, was always seen as ‘less then’, something Cushla has inherited, grown up with and allowed to define her, without a full appreciation of.
She has a soft spot for one of her pupils, Davy McGeown, she knows his mother is struggling with three small children, a wayward 18 year old son and a troubled husband. Her attempt to cut them some slack, to try and get the school to provide Davy school lunches brings the family unwanted attention. Moved by their need, her instinct is to get involved and help.
Friends and Lovers
Her colleague Gerry invites her out. He seems to be her one true friend, the only person she can rely on. But it is towards the older, in almost every way unavailable, Michael, she yearns.
The novel traces the early days of their doomed affair, displaying all the classic signs of being something to the side of one’s life, except that for her, she desires more. Though he takes her to his Irish conversation social gathering, the way his friends act is less than welcoming. Much of their connection, irrespective of their age and religious differences is frowned upon everywhere, it seems impossible and she wonders if she is just one in a line of other women.
News, Bad News, Terror and Scares
Each chapter begins with a radio news announcement, a politically motivated violent event, a death, a bombing, a recounting of damage, injuries, blame.
Every school day too begins with recounting the news, the children have no chance of not knowing the charged political climate around them, often their school events are interrupted by random police checks, a bomb-scare.
There are lines that should not be crossed, there are consequences unseen, random events that require little imagination to see how they might unfold. There are ordinary, dsyfunctional trysts and risky choices of career, that occur in all cultures and societies, but in some the punishment for what another might consider to be a transgression are more severe than others.
The lack of love in Cushla’s life might be what leads her to cross these lines, to defy convention without being the rebellious type. We don’t know much about Michael or why he made the decisions he did; he set out to protect some, which could disturb others, and his choices would make the women in his life suffer.
A Collision Course
Ultimately the connections Cushla has made will collide and demonstrate how easy it can be for one of those radio announcements to no longer be a mere repetition of the way life is, in a country where sectarian violence is normalised.
It is a sad depiction of life and an interesting novel to discuss, as it reinforces the necessity for so many to choose to leave, when their options and opportunities close on them.
In this respect I was reminded a little of Michelle Gallen’s recent novel Factory Girls, where another young woman, in her naivety finds doors closing permanently, as she too leaves Northern Ireland.
I enjoyed how this all came together in the latter part of the novel, when it suddenly picks up pace, energy and suspense; I found the initial two thirds less engaging and too many pages given to the affair that could have more usefully been given to greater character development, that might have evoked greater empathy for some of the characters and the situation.
The depiction of the tense atmosphere and some of the revealing anecdotes that demonstrate the prejudices and slights people have against one another were incredibly well done and somewhat eye-opening, the result of a continued separation of people and a belief in their own self-made differences.
It left me with quite a few questions; however it was a thought provoking read, about an unsettling place and time, that remains something of an enigma to the outside world.
I read this during March 2023 for #ReadingIrelandMonth23
Louise Kennedy, Author
Louise Kennedy grew up in Holywood, Country Down, a few miles from Belfast.
Her stories have appeared in literary journals including The Stinging Fly, The Tangerine, Banshee, Awsfiri and Ambit and she has written for the guardian, Irish Times, BBC Radio 4 and rTE radio 1.
Her work has won prizes and she was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Audible short story award in both 2019 and 2020. Her short story collection The End of the World is a Cul de Sac was published in 2021.
Trespasses has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. It won the An Post Irish Book Awards Novel of 2022 for
Before starting her writing career, she spent nearly 30 years working as a chef. She lives in Sligo with her husband and children.
New York Times review: In Northern Ireland During the Troubles, a Secret Romance by J. Courtney Sullivan
the guardian review: love amid the Troubles by Kevin Power
This sounds like more of a Might Read than a must Read.
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I enjoyed this one a lot, and thought it took a relatively recognisable story and turned it in to something fresh, but I much preferred her short story collection.
I enjoyed it, however I wasn’t entirely convinced by the authenticity of the relationship, I think Cushla was the much more fleshed out character, whereas Michael was something of an enigma, and having known her parents, it seemed strange that their paths hadn’t crossed earlier. The short stories do sound very good.
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This sounds so good. Thanks for posting.
I’m reading this book now, so I will return and read your review properly when I have finished. I’m enjoying it… but waiting for something big or tragic to happen…
BTW, for some reason, your posts don’t appear in the Jetpack (formerly WP) app… so I have subscribed by email instead.
I’m using the Jetpack app too, it just told me I wasn’t following you either, even though I am, well I followed again, I wonder what we lose every time they make a change like this. Thanks for refollowing.
I loved this novel and found it very immersive, so it’s fascinating to read a more mixed review (and the comments from other readers are very interesting to see). That’s a good point about the enigmatic air around Michael. I felt that was part of the attraction for Cushla, the sense of mystery and potential danger he projected…
Yes, I felt that Cushla was looking for a father figure or attempting to snatch some sophistication from a bleak existence. I did not really enjoy the book but certainly thought it was a very interesting read.
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