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.

All these afford no more than glimpses, if compelling ones; as yet, no Honorary Consul, Golden Notebook or Burger’s Daughter has come out of Belfast. As a subject for fiction, the city and its exigencies were first found largely uninspiring, then topical; no satiety has set in. Two kinds of Belfast novel have proliferated: the one (not always illuminating) about what it’s like to live there, and the one that concerns itself with militaristic goings-on. Lonely the man without heroes is a thriller with allegoric overtones. It’s presided over by the spirit of an enigmatic ex-diplomat, Arthur Apple, a character once allotted a crucial role in a tableau set up by M.S. Power. Arthur Apple formed half of an ill-assorted pair conjoined in death. A similarly incongruous dead twosome is mentioned at the start of the current novel, and from this moment on it’s a matter of explaining how an Army intelligence officer and a suspected IRA sympathiser came to die together on the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Two points are made in the book: that savage customs – to quote the epigraph, from the Colville Papers of 1717, chosen by Maurice Leitch for his novel Stamping Ground – ‘beget a corresponding darkness of the soul’; and that, in Northern Ireland, loyalists and seditionists are akin in ways uncomprehended by an outsider. Put at risk the pattern of executions worked out between them, and, as likely as not, they’ll act in cahoots to embarrass you. So the British Army finds when it sends in a special operations unit to pick off certain leading members of the IRA. At the head of this unit is an unengaging intelligence officer called Colonel Guy Sharmann. Sharmann is sharp with his hit-man when a mistake is made: ‘And next time for God’s sake try and get the right person.’ But because of this mistake things cannot go according to the Army’s plan. An astute police inspector has spotted how the land lies, and, through him, an IRA ‘godfather’ named Seamus Reilly is put in the picture. Reilly is at the centre of Power’s plot; as Browning remarked, our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things, and here’s a compunctious terrorist to hold it. Reilly, we’re told, weeps ‘for the bodies I order killed’. We might, though in fact we don’t, hear the voice of Arthur Apple whispering: ‘Crocodile tears.’

Mr Apple’s disembodied voice has other things to say, some of them apocalyptic in tone; the ears it whispers into are those of an Englishman, Colonel Maddox, once stationed in Northern Ireland, but removed for being known to keep his word; a journalist named Declan Tuohy whose sister is the widow of the man shot in error; and Seamus Reilly, who wishes the ghostly old oracle would stop telling him: ‘You are already dead.’ What it’s alluding to, no doubt, is the death of the spirit. Reilly himself bemoans the spirit that’s gone out of political life: that of old-time republicanism. The expedients of the present have driven it clean away. Those who embodied it, the patriots of the past, he says, have withdrawn, ‘as though ashamed, somehow managing to take with them all the glory from our fight’. After making this wistful statement, Reilly goes off to prescribe a fatal accident for an IRA recruit who failed to keep his mind on the job.

All this is fine: and Power deserves credit for his accomplished handling of an ingenious plot, and its recherché elements. But why does he keep calling the Shankill Road the Shankhill, and why, in any case, has he placed a republican family in this notoriously Orange area? When he claims that Seamus Reilly’s name is not unknown on the Shankill, does he mean in the way that Gusty Spence, say, might strike a chord on the Falls? These are matters that could be clearer.

Blight, on a smaller scale, and more enticingly envisaged, is the theme of Rachel Ingalls’s pungent quartet of stories. ‘Pearlkillers’ are people whose skin rots pearls: involuntary destroyers. So, we have Lily, twice widowed in Vietnam (a misfortune that seems to call for a Lady Bracknell to comment on it), finding solace in thoughts of Ancient Egypt and the cult of Isis, and finally making it to Cairo on her third – reluctant – honeymoon. ‘Third Time Lucky’ is the ironic title. In ‘People to People’ a group of university students, twenty years on, is faced with exposure of the truth about a night of high jinks when one of their classmates met his end. That past death engenders five in the present. In ‘Captain Hendrik’s Story’ – the longest of the four – a shooting is undertaken, once again, to keep something dark: in this case, the dissipated activities of a Swedish sea captain, who’d been whooping it up in Vienna all the time he was supposed to be lost in a jungle in South America. Ingalls has a calm way of presenting her ornamental imaginings which is highly effective.

John Bowen’s agreeable new novel, The Girls, opens with a pig on the loose in a gift shop, one of those village contretemps by which minor events of the time are afterwards computed. The shop, full of home-made produce and hand-crafted objects, is owned, stocked and lovingly run by the girls of the title, Sue and Jan, 27 and 37, a charming lesbian pair. A dainty and wholesome existence seems the lot of these two. The headstrong pig, however, is an augury of trouble. During the summer of its depredations – 1974 – one girl gets restless and lights out for Crete, while the other, succumbing to a mild impulse of heterosexuality, finds herself pregnant before the leaves are off the trees. Things are arranged to suit the new contingency. Nevertheless, as a consequence of the aberrant act, a body winds up in the girls’ septic tank, and much agitation and remorse is generated. Bowen is amiably clinical about such matters as the process of decomposition and the problem of polluted air in the tank’s vicinity. He manages, too, to maintain an equable and playful note, while not being unduly anarchic in his attitude to the knocking-off of an inoffensive source of annoyance.

Lesbian motherhood is a topical concern which John Bowen carefully treats untopically. Deborah Moggach, on the other hand, with her central exploit – having a baby on another’s behalf – goes all out for an up-to-the-minute gloss. She takes two sisters, insipid Ann, whose pregnancies come to nothing, and vivid Viv, of cast-iron fertility. Viv lives in invigorating disorder, while Ann’s little house is spotless, as well as being cotless. Ann has a husband who, regaling his wife with the day’s disasters, refers to himself as ‘Muggins here’. This is the person whom Viv proposes to co-opt as her impregnator, first of all by means of artificial insemination, and then in the normal way. The simpler method of going about the business does not commend itself to Viv’s husband: ‘I call it adultery.’ The process of getting things straightened out, between these fatefully intertwined couples, forms the substance of Moggach’s novel, which is bold and contemporary to the point of being barefaced.

Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel, gives an askew view of the hazards of modern suburban living, what with juvenile satanism, old-age satyriasis, community services going awry, and households bedevilled in one way or another. This novel is a sequel to Every day is mother’s day (1985), in which the mad Axons, mother and daughter, one psychically over-endowed and the other mentally deficient, made things hum in the neighbourhood. The current book is set ten years after the events of the first: it’s 1984, and Muriel Axon has recovered her wits, if not a normal outlook to go with them. Made over in grotesque female impersonator style (one of several guises available to her), and calling herself Lizzie Blank, she turns up as the cleaning woman at her own old home, now the property of the Sidney family, whose vexations enlivened the earlier story. They’re no less subject to chagrin, on account of past pusillanimity and impending upheavals. Hilary Mantel, an exuberantly cranky and comic writer, relies on a pattern of fortuitous conjunctions to get the most out of her ebullient material.

Caroline Lassalle’s novel Breaking the rules (her first) is based on a device: the supposition that one’s past selves are other people, or as good as. The six women in the book – Celia, Charlotte, Eleanor, Laura, Ida and Andrea – boil down to one, at different stages in life. They’re all so similar in character that there isn’t any mystery about this, though the circumstances change with each new name. Whether she’s called Charlotte or Laura, for example, this person can’t help expressing a rather adolescent contempt for dullness as manifested by ‘ordinary’ people. Celia, who’s ended up on a Mediterranean island, started out as Charlotte, product of an upper-class Catholic upbringing, recalcitrant boarding-school girl and enthusiastic Oxford undergraduate. The section dealing with Charlotte’s experiences is the longest and most satisfactory in the book. Period detail – Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Palladian, blue and white striped dresses, ‘pancake’ make-up – is more abundant here than elsewhere. The point about one woman in her time playing many parts – university wife in an English provincial town, South African political detainee – is well thought out. When it comes to narrative presentation, however, Caroline Lassalle doesn’t break any rules with sufficient conviction or flair to make this novel memorable.

In The Bay of Silence Lisa St Aubin de Teran has turned her back on the gift for straightforward narrative re-creation which marked her earlier books. It’s about the difficulties an apparently felicitous marriage is up against, and also a madwoman-in-the-attic story. Rosalind Walsh, an ex-film actress, is a cured schizophrenic who, it turns out, is subject to relapses. In the course of one relapse she goes on holiday, leaving behind her husband William but taking every other family accoutrement down to the pet tortoise Fred (hidden in the baby’s pram). A drugged cat is part of her entourage. The spot chosen for Rosalind’s holiday is not a happy one. It is called Larenguebec, on the Normandy coast. The natives there are very peculiar, perhaps because of emissions from the local nuclear reactor. They spit at visitors. Rosalind, at her rented house, goes into hiding in the attic and refuses to emerge. By the time William gets there his baby son and his tortoise have copped it, his strange twin daughters are spending their days burying bits of crab and wheeling their decomposing brother about in his pram, the nursemaid has run off with a Guernsey fisherman, Rosalind is in a bad state and everything stinks. Is William annoyed by Rosalind’s – to say the least of it – inadequate home-making? Not a bit of it – ‘My abilities are in the mundane chores, while yours are in a higher, wider sphere,’ he says self-abasingly.

What are we to make of a novel purporting to be a study of duality and neurosis, which contains so much preposterous nonsense? The Bay of Silence with its deadly-earnest tone and made-up grotesquerie, can only strike one as being altogether too big for its boots.