by Louise Kennedy.
Bloomsbury, 311 pp., £14.99, April, 978 1 5266 2332 4
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Every morning​ , between reciting the Hail Mary and beginning their lessons, the children at St Dallan’s Catholic primary school near Belfast do ‘The News’. News, in this community, might mean many things: that someone’s father, perennially out of work for ‘kicking with the wrong foot’, has managed to find a job; that the pop group Mud has gone to number one with ‘Oh Boy’; or, more likely, that there’s been a murder, a beating, a car bomb, a riot, a high-profile trial. ‘A booby-trap bomb that was intended for a British army foot patrol exploded prematurely, killing two boys near the border,’ pipes up seven or eight-year-old Jonathan from the front row, like a miniature newscaster. ‘They died instantly.’ Cushla Lavery, the class’s teacher and the young Catholic protagonist of Trespasses, Louise Kennedy’s first novel, hates the ritual of The News and the specialist vocabulary it inculcates. ‘Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act.’ But the headmaster refuses to drop it, on the grounds that it encourages his pupils ‘to be aware of the world around them’ – as if they weren’t already.

News is a structuring motif in Trespasses: public events shadow private lives, transform them into public property. Kennedy, who grew up Catholic in a predominantly Protestant town outside Belfast in the 1970s, has drawn on her experience of the Troubles before: her story ‘In Silhouette’, from her collection The End of the World is a Cul de Sac (2021), gives us a teenage girl’s view, charged and slippery, of an IRA killing carried out by her brother, Thady. The story’s intimate second-person perspective keeps our attention trained on the protagonist, so that the details of Thady’s involvement and imprisonment seem to slide in and out of focus: ‘You try to imagine your brother in a blanket, his hair matted with shite, but you can’t picture him.’ In Trespasses, set in the mid-1970s, the narrative lens is wider, forcing everything into context, measuring individual freedoms against the constraints of community and geography. Cushla’s favourite pupil, Davy McGeown, the product of an interfaith marriage, lives on a loyalist estate so festooned with flags and bunting that it looks ‘like Nuremberg’; by the end of the novel, he and his family have been ‘burnt-out’ by an arsonist, though one considerate enough to alert the fire brigade ‘so as not to waste a good house’. Cushla’s own family runs a pub in a Protestant part of town: when she arrives one evening to help pull pints with ashes still smudged on her forehead (‘papish warpaint’), her brother, Eamonn, slaps a wet cloth into her hand and tells her she’s an ‘eejit’.

Even without the sign of the cross on her face, Cushla is marked. There’s her first name, from the Irish for ‘the pulse of my heart’; her way of speaking (Protestants, she learned as a child, say ‘aitch’ while Catholics say ‘haitch’); her familiarity with the Irish language, now associated with the defiant speeches of young Republicans in court. Most significant is the clandestine relationship she embarks on, early in the novel, with Michael Agnew, a middle-aged, married, Protestant barrister, which leaves its damning traces – the dirt of his car smeared on her hands and face, his scent on her body. She, like the other characters, makes her way by learning to read the signs, scanning faces and voices for clues of religious or political affiliation, friend or foe, guilt or innocence. Mrs Coyle, Michael’s Catholic cleaning lady, whose son is holed up in police custody, ‘visibly unfurls’ on hearing Cushla’s Gaelic name; at the other end of the spectrum, Victor, one of Michael’s middle-class friends, sits ‘peering at her through the smoke from the cigar he was toking on’, gearing up for a barbed question: ‘Michael tells us you’re a native speaker.’

This mode of observation, piecing together the big picture from small details, is something the novel asks of its readers too. Kennedy fleshes out her characters’ identities by pointing to meaningful accents, behaviours, interests, tics of speech. (‘I rely on those details in my fiction because I’m not confident about giving access to my characters’ thoughts,’ she has said. ‘I have to describe what is around my characters and show how they interact with it all to convey what they are about.’) Sometimes, such details are idiosyncratic, unavailable to be read along sectarian or political lines. In Dublin, where Michael takes Cushla for a dirty weekend, the various nuns and priests ranged at the hotel bar are drawn distinctly: ‘At the counter, a lone priest parping on a cigar between mouthfuls of brandy.’ The regulars at Cushla’s family’s pub are all Protestant, some of them militant (one, Fidel, moonlights as a brigadier in the local branch of the Ulster Defence Association), but they each possess specific weirdnesses that cut against their common affiliation. Between Fidel and Michael sits ‘a fitter from the shipyard called Leslie’, who ‘didn’t speak until he was drunk and one night told Cushla he’d love to bath her’.

Other details are more pointed. Michael takes Cushla to see John Lavery’s Easter Rising painting, The Trial of Sir Roger Casement, which he admires for being ‘so quietly subversive’; we don’t need to hear Cushla say so to know that, in her world, quiet subversion is a category error. Visiting the McGeown family on their hostile estate, Cushla’s mother, Gina, is alert to escape routes or the lack of them: ‘Wouldn’t you think they could have given them a house at the front?’ Class divisions reveal themselves around the dinner table. Michael orders for Cushla at restaurants, negotiating across her with ‘Joe the sommelier and Paddy the maître d’’. His friends Penny and Jim, who host semi-earnest Irish language-learning sessions at weekly dinner parties, have ‘jars and tins with French labels’, and daughters who send them aubergines and taramasalata from England. When Cushla cooks for her mother at home, she makes ‘Spaghetti Milanese’ with yard-long novelty pasta boiled in a fish kettle. ‘She had to use ham from a slipper-shaped tin you opened with a key, and mushrooms from a jar.’

Cushla’s way of seeing the world bleeds into descriptions of places and people. On her way to a party with her not-boyfriend, Gerry, she spots a fleet of Land Rovers on the bypass, sporting ‘bomb-proof maxi skirts skimming the tarmac’. At Mass on Easter Sunday, the figure of Jesus in the Stations of the Cross paintings is ‘a ringer for James Taylor’, the cast of his handsome face improbably ‘unchanged from one station to the next’. As the novel progresses, and her complicated, in-between position grows increasingly difficult to manage, Cushla’s vision darkens at the edges. Who she is becomes a function of what’s around her, the environment that contains her and makes her either safe or unsafe. (‘We live here, Lavery,’ Gerry warns her. ‘There are things we can’t do.’) At Michael’s flat one evening, she notices a magnolia branch ‘fingering’ the windowpane, as if intrusively; inside, ‘the olive-green curtains had faded to khaki.’ Driving Davy and his family to their new home in a Catholic enclave, she passes Michael’s old boarding school, which seems to contain, in miniature, a history of all the violence between and around them: ‘where Michael had watched the hanged boy’s body borne away on a stretcher, where his son Dermot had been when his mother was getting electric shocks and his father was fucking Cushla’. We’re not given access to the thoughts of the McGeowns as they stare out of the car window, ‘faces pressed to the glass’, but we glimpse them through the objects they see, ordinary things that become portentous. A trolley broken free from the chain outside the supermarket, spinning towards the road.’

For almost 250 pages, Trespasses is a quiet novel, quiet in view of the place and time it inhabits. Cushla and Michael conduct their affair, keeping schtum in the pub, braving the sceptical looks of his friends; there’s a bomb scare at the school, ritual harassment by a squad of British soldiers at a friend’s wedding, but nothing, it’s made clear, beyond what might ordinarily be expected. When Seamie McGeown, Davy’s father, is almost killed by a group of loyalists, his head kicked in, ribs broken, wrists slashed by a nail, the violence is shocking. But there’s more than a suggestion, in Kennedy’s emphasis on the Christ-like nature of his wounded hands (‘weeping like stigmata’), that his suffering will be sacrificial, redemptive somehow of the sins that are building up, ominously, elsewhere.

In the event, of course, the assault is less a sacrifice than a time bomb. One night, Michael is shot and killed in bed next to his wife. Tommy, Davy’s taciturn, vengeful older brother, is arrested for the murder; the McGeowns’ house goes up in flames. Cushla and Gina, unwisely, take the family in. When Cushla is questioned by the police, who sense something fishy in her connection to both Michael and the McGeowns, she is sacked by the headmaster; not long afterwards, the Lavery pub is bombed, probably by one of its former regulars. It’s a claustrophobic fifty pages, but in a way that feels true to the situation and to Cushla’s experience of it. In her community, no action fails to trigger a reaction, no reaction a counteraction; nothing happens, then everything happens at once.

Within this spiral, there are questions about agency and chance that impinge on the way the novel is put together. The conventionality of Kennedy’s ‘forbidden love’ plot – Catholic woman falls in love with Protestant man, nothing ends happily ever after – makes space for narrative self-consciousness. ‘This is going to end really badly, isn’t it?’ Cushla says to Michael, tipping a wink at what the reader must be thinking. And again: ‘We’re doomed. Apart from that we’re grand.’ The key question Trespasses asks itself, often framed more or less consciously by Cushla, isn’t ‘what would happen if?’ – we all know what will happen if – but something more interesting and complicated, along the lines of ‘if this is what must happen, how do we get there?’ In Cushla’s mind, it can’t be a coincidence that Michael Agnew, who she’s been sleeping with, has been shot dead by Tommy McGeown, who has an obvious crush on her, and whose family she has tried to protect. ‘How could Tommy possibly know Michael? She replayed every second she’d ever spent in the boy’s company, frantic that she had mentioned Michael, that she had left an address somewhere, that he could have seen her with him.’ The police, whose job it is to make everything fit together, often to the benefit of one community rather than the other, sketch a similar narrative. ‘It’s not looking great,’ one officer warns her. ‘If there’s a connection, I’ll find it.’ To be a protagonist, as Cushla seems to sense she is, means being the pivot on which other people’s lives turn, the ‘conditional clause’, in Kennedy’s phrase, of the novel’s grammar. ‘What if she was the conditional clause? What if Michael Agnew would still be alive if he had not met Cushla Lavery?’

Constructing a plot out of connections, whether obvious or hidden, makes sense in the context of a place where everyone is affiliated one way or the other. (Trust, in Kennedy’s Belfast, is built on finding common ground: when Gerry invites Cushla to a party, Gina showers him with questions, ‘where he was from, his mother’s maiden name’, keeping on at him ‘until she found a connection’.) But you can be doomed by chance as well as by your own agency, and one of the darkest ironies in Trespasses is that what happens to Cushla turns out to have had nothing to do with her. Tommy hadn’t been aware, she learns after the trial, of who Michael was when he shot him, or known that Michael was anyone special; he had him down as a judge, a political enemy, and on a different day he might have picked someone else. Once more, the novel is self-conscious about its decision-making. ‘There had been no connection after all,’ Kennedy has Cushla realise. ‘It was just bad luck, the sort of thing that happened here all the time.’

Bad luck points to things being no one’s responsibility, or everyone’s; it takes the weight of ‘all my fault’ off Cushla’s shoulders. But it also diminishes her as a protagonist, because it makes her someone things happen to, rather than the person without whom, in the space of the novel, nothing would have changed. Moments during her relationship with Michael foreshadow this: in bed he repeatedly ‘arranges her body’ as he wants it, like a painter’s model, ‘hands over her head, legs barely parted’. There are parallels here with some of the protagonists in Kennedy’s short stories, women for whom sex looks liberating but turns out not to be. Doireann, in ‘What the Birds Heard’, abandons a grim marriage to Paul, a man who likes to use ‘words like provenance and even, towards the end, terroir’, and ‘pumps at her joylessly’ in bed (‘she cried and said if he could inseminate her like a cow he would’); her lover, Tim, whom she meets in a remote Donegal village, seems to be his opposite, a man of action and few words. But his instinct is to ‘arrange’ her body in the same way: ‘There. More. Wait. Now. Yeah. Now.’ In Trespasses, it isn’t just Cushla, or female characters in general, who find themselves unable to choose what happens to them. Eamonn, Cushla’s brother, has to give up his pub and move south; Davy, whom she meets again years later, goes through foster care and struggles with fatherhood. Kennedy’s insistence on context, her way of fashioning characters out of the details surrounding them, catches everyone. In this world, there’s no escaping who you are.

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