Belfast Book

Patricia Craig

  • Lonely the man without heroes by M.S. Power
    Heinemann, 222 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 434 59960 3
  • The Pearlkillers by Rachel Ingalls
    Faber, 205 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 571 13795 4
  • The Girls by John Bowen
    Hamish Hamilton, 182 pp, £8.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 241 11867 0
  • To have and to hold by Deborah Moggach
    Viking, 320 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 670 80812 1
  • Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel
    Chatto, 239 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 7011 3047 4
  • Breaking the rules by Caroline Lassalle
    Hamish Hamilton, 280 pp, £9.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 241 11837 9
  • The Bay of Silence by Lisa St Aubin de Teran
    Cape, 163 pp, £8.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 224 02345 4

The first of these writers, M.S. Power, has a searing metaphor to describe the effect of Ireland on certain people, those native to it and others: nailed to the place, they end up as in a crucifixion. ‘You and I are a crucified breed,’ says one leading terrorist (half-way through his latest novel) to another. ‘Just set foot on the soil of Ireland and you’ll be crucified to it forever,’ thinks another Power character, an honourable English colonel (retired), recalling the words of a high-up republican, or – it may be – an RUC inspector. Ireland – or, to be specific, Northern Ireland – has these people in its deadly grip. Lonely the man without heroes is the second volume of Power’s projected trilogy entitled ‘Children of the North’. Out of the north – to reverse an old Gaelic saying – comes the utmost despair. The Power novels are set in Belfast, but a Belfast deprived of every feature that gives it its character. As in the ordinary thriller, it’s become the scene of opposing stratagems, nothing more. Such books contain no sense of life going on in the usual way, in the teeth of military and paramilitary activity. Some authors – Power and Maurice Leitch, for example – clearly have a symbolic design in excluding the social and domestic from their work. They mean to stress the balefulness of what’s been brought about, by isolating the deformation of life in the city. (Authors in pursuit of a cruder kind of drama tend to lumber their characters with sets of convictions, among other things, resembling the bag of swag borne about by a comic-strip burglar.) With this approach, though, what’s lost – along with certain refinements of characterisation – is the atmosphere in which violent measures are condoned and enacted.

Novelists have never done at all well by Belfast, which used to be castigated for its dullness before the antithesis of that state was achieved. Once nothing happened there: now everything does, since Moloch has taken over from monotony. City of Moloch, M.S. Power labels Belfast (the first volume of his trilogy is called The Killing of Yesterday’s Children), viewing it from a perspective not available to Brian Moore, for example, who judged it wanting in rather more quotidian ways. Moore’s acuity as a social critic is the really striking thing about his Belfast novels – though the outcome of the malaise he encountered decades ago seems to leave him cold. Belfast as a topic, it appears, no longer holds any interest for him. Still, before Brian Moore, whom do we have? Michael McLaverty, perhaps, with his adroit unclouded prose and unabashed simplicity: ‘At the top of the mountain they lay in the heather and gazed at Belfast spread out in the flat hollow below them, its lean mill chimneys stretched above the haze of smoke. Rows of red-brick houses radiated on all sides and above them rose blocks of factories with many of their windows catching the light.’ There’s a piece of scene-painting for the nostalgic to latch onto. A novel like McLaverty’s Call my brother back (1939) offers a view of Belfast as unpretentious as a game of hopscotch on the pavement. For back-street knowingness and flamboyance you have to come right up to the present and the stories of John Morrow, in which the native idiom and capacity for non-serious outrage find their fullest expression.

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