Blights

Patricia Craig

  • A Darkness in the Eye by M.S. Power
    Heinemann, 212 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 434 59961 1
  • The Stars at Noon by Denis Johnson
    Faber, 181 pp, £9.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 571 14607 4
  • Like Birds in the Wilderness by Agnes Owens
    Fourth Estate, 138 pp, £9.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 947795 51 0
  • Fool’s Sanctuary by Jennifer Johnston
    Hamish Hamilton, 132 pp, £8.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 241 12035 7
  • A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)
    Viking, 317 pp, £10.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 670 80977 2
  • Sisters of the Road by Barbara Wilson
    Women’s Press, 202 pp, £3.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 7043 4073 9
  • The price you pay by Hannah Wakefield
    Women’s Press, 245 pp, £4.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 7043 4072 0

With A Darkness in the Eye M.S. Power completes his terrorist trilogy. It is set, as are parts one and two, in a characterless city called Belfast, and opens as they do with news of a killing, before back-tracking to delineate the circumstances in which the victim met his end. The current victim is Seamus Reilly, himself previously a death-dealer on a large scale – one-time head, in fact, of the IRA’s Punishment Squad, and author of quite a few bloody dispatches. Reilly has come round, a bit late in the day, to a democratic way of thinking. He is, we are told, doing his utmost to put an end to ‘the violence that crippled the province’. This new attitude puts him at odds with those among his former associates who remain addicted to slaughter. Within the IRA, peace-lovers like Reilly are labelled ‘doves’, while the rest go under the name of ‘hawks’. At the start of the novel, three hawks detach themselves from Reilly’s unit, deciding to go it alone. They are a short fat father of many children, a nail-biter of small intelligence, and a personable blonde referred to throughout as ‘the woman’ or ‘that woman’. ‘It’s that woman I worry about,’ says Reilly’s Commander. ‘She’s the one that will most resent the power being taken from her. They always do. Women.’ No voice demurs at this judgment.

The breakaway hawks take under their wing an Army officer, a Major Fisher, who is passing himself off as a deserter. It’s a sorry assignment he is landed with, Fisher finds. To ingratiate himself with his new allies he has to shoot a corporal in his own regiment. Meanwhile the woman behind this atrocity is making a series of visits to Glasgow, in the course of which an ambitious enterprise is arranged: the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton. At the same time, Seamus Reilly of the IRA, who knows all about the Army ploy involving the bogus deserter, as well as suspecting that some mainland drama is about to be enacted, is engaged in dealings with his old ally from part two of the trilogy, Mr Asher of the RUC. These traditional antagonists, both very short men, are acting in cahoots to keep things from getting worse. To complete the cast of characters, and to promote continuity, we have Colonel Matthew Maddox, an honourable Englishman and the subject of an assassination attempt in book one, The Killing of Yesterday’ s Children, winkled out of Berkshire by a brigadier who tells him that his country needs him – needs him, in fact, to liaise with the foolhardy Fisher. The dutiful colonel is not greatly taken with the role.

The Army, the IRA and the RUC: these are the players in the insoluble board game, involving complicated reshuffles and adjustments in allegiance, which Power has invented to demonstrate the pass Northern Ireland has come to. There isn’t a whiff of naturalism about the presentation of sectarian or political conflict in the Power trilogy: such conflict is simply the occasion for a diagram of darkness and deviousness. Being ‘forced to form links with strange allies’: this is one of the many things deplored by the decent colonel, Maddox, whose preferred allies are as aboveboard as himself; and it gains, indeed, an unlikely apologist for the IRA, the RUC inspector, Asher, who has established a firm understanding with his counterpart, Reilly. (Asher’s character, incidentally, undergoes a change after book one: from being an object of disapproval, small, bumptious and undignified to boot, he is suddenly endowed with authority and flexibility, to meet the requirements of the second plot. We hear no more about his entanglements with loose women.) ‘The IRA were just ordinary men doing what they saw as fit and proper for their cause, resorting to violence because otherwise nobody would pay them any heed,’ thinks this unduly unbigoted policeman. Here we have an instance of the author bending over backwards to point up the contortions in Irish affairs.

The basic thriller-writer’s plot involves power struggles of one kind or another, and its effectiveness, in part, may be gauged by the amount of intricacy and irony that goes into it. The Power trilogy is well-endowed in this respect, with every key move having a striking outcome. However, it displays some of the defects associated with the genre. The author’s approach is sometimes slapdash. For instance, he specifies 1979 as the year in which The Killing of Yesterday’s Children is set, and then alludes to the hunger strike, which didn’t take place until two years later. He is still, in book three, under the impression that Belfast contains a road called the Shank-hill. His transcription of colloquialisms isn’t reliable. ‘How a soul is supposed to manage ... I really don’t know,’ says a character in part one: what she should have said is ‘body’. ‘Youse saved my life,’ says someone else, speaking in the singular: this perfectly logical solecism occurs only when more than one person is being addressed. Power is good at imposing a distinct outline on episodes of political manoeuvring, but he falls very short as a social commentator. One of his few female characters is a prostitute – driven to it, we’re to gather, by the need to ward off hardship from her ‘terrified mother’, whose husband has been carted off to Long Kesh. Isn’t Power aware of the funds set aside for prisoners’ dependents?

The business of being precipitated into prostitution, or terrorism: it is all very straightforward in Power’s mind – a consequence, for instance, of some devastating event, like the murder or ill-treatment of a relative. In this way the unnamed female agent of the Brighton bombing, in the current book, is recruited into the IRA. (For a subtler account of the making of a terrorist, you have to turn to a piece of fiction like Anne Devlin’s ‘Naming the names’.) Power sets up a proliferation of outlets for treachery and hostility. His characters, when they’re not expressing weariness, have a vicious and unengaging style of speech: ‘I say fuck you and your likes. You’re all full of shit.’ Towards the end of book three, however, comes an unexpected outburst of applause for the Northern Irish character. ‘And what people!’ exclaims a previously disenchanted journalist called Declan Tuohy. ‘The most cheerful, friendliest people in the world, defying the world to beat you down with a laugh and a grin and a rose in your teeth and a clackety-clack-clack of your fingers.’ Is he joking? His brother-in-law and nephew have been gunned down in the streets and his sister driven out of her mind.

Mr Apple, the eccentric ex-diplomat of mystical bent, who lost his life in book one, and persisted as an oracular voice in book two, is now remembered for the justice of his pronouncements, which include this one: ‘We are all dead in this blighted land.’ The idea that life lived in certain conditions is equivalent to a kind of death: this is at the centre of Denis Johnson’s novel too. Here, the blighted land is Nicaragua, which is hot enough for Hell. The air is a compound of diesel oil and greasy dirt. Johnson’s narrator, another unnamed woman, has come to Central America on some dubious pretext. She is either a putative journalist, or a ‘contact person’ for something called ‘Eyes for Peace’. She is also a prostitute on the side. Her namelessness is in keeping with her debilitated, throwaway attitude. In Managua, her only assets a bag of black-market cordobas, and a certain detachment from the awfulness around her, she takes up with an Englishman, a low-grade oil executive in a pickle. The naivety of this person exasperates and disarms her. By distributing information about his business, in the interests of fairness (as he believes), he has made things very dicey for himself. For her too, as she bundles him off towards the border with Costa Rica, all the while taking note of the features of the landscape of Hell – corrugated iron, pestiferous urchins, a rain of bugs. Only one of Denis Johnson’s low-spirited duo will make it to the other side: this is a novel about betrayal, futility and devastation – none of which seems of great consequence, it’s true, within the confines of Johnson’s up-to-date Inferno.

To imagine themselves in Hell would seem excessively highfalutin’ to the characters in Agnes Owens’s novel, the hero of which is keeping his pecker up in dispiriting circumstances. Like Birds in the Wilderness is the title, and the wilderness is an urban one, with unemployment, frustration and dirty dealing conspicuous in it. Removal from one part of Scotland to another hasn’t really improved Mac’s lot, as far as finding work is concerned. True, he lands a job on a building-site (he’s a brickie), but promptly gets himself dismissed by acting cavalierly. This is one of the plums that slips out of his grasp. Another is his moody girlfriend, and a third is the prospect for betterment held out to him by a chancer met in a pub. A robust manner and a large appetite for drink are qualities that affect this Scotsman’s progress, a progress that amounts to going round in a circle. The book is full of backchat and pent-up energy. It takes a droll line about emergencies peculiar to the present. ‘There’s terrorists everywhere nowadays, ‘says one of its characters, when a bang is heard in the distance. ‘It’s the new craze.’

‘Disorder, violence, death.’ We are back in Ireland, Southern Ireland, in 1920, with the British Army still in occupation, Black and Tans on the loose, and Republicans in trench coats resorting to extreme expedients. Fool’s Sanctuary, Jennifer Johnston’s new novel, or novella, rehearses these familiar elements, but imposes a new, somewhat wavering outline on them, as they float into the mind of an old woman savouring for the last time the poignancy of her past. Like Minnie McMahon in The Gates, and Nancy Gulliver in The Old Jest, the central character of this novel is 19 years old, all playfulness and charm, and utterly unprepared for tragedy, despite the state of the country and its implications for her future. The cast assembled by the author is small, and carefully chosen to generate the maximum intensity. Motherless Miranda Martin, 19 in 1920, is the daughter of an amiable landowner, an expert in land reclamation who cannot grasp the urgency in any other matter. Miranda’s brother Andrew is an officer in the British Army; and Miranda’s heart is given to a young Republican, a student of philosophy and protégé of her father’s, a boy from a social class lower than her own. An old Nanny is about the place to supply comfort and common sense. Andrew, home on leave at an adverse moment, brings with him an Army friend, a pleasant, nervous young man called Harry, who has to listen to some old grievances of Andrew’s. Contradictory allegiances soon come into the picture, as an essential Irish dilemma is adumbrated. Highly charged and elliptical, Fool’s Sanctuary is unlike the other works under review, in being written by an author susceptible to the glamour in ill-fated associations.

Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell’s alter ego, has written her second enthralling novel: A Fatal Inversion is about the fatal convergence of some more or less unlikeable young people, during the sweltering summer of 1976. The novel opens, in the present, with an episode involving the disinterment of human bones from a pet cemetery attached to a manor house in Suffolk. This house was briefly the property of Adam Verne-Smith, a crotchety great-uncle having left it to him to spite his nephew, Adam’s father, the expected heir. It’s a sinister gift that comes by the left hand. As in a fairy-tale, it carries with it a burden of ill-luck for the unwary. That indolent summer, instead of making a planned trip to Greece, the new owner establishes himself and a friend, Rufus, at Wyvis Hall (rechristened ‘Ecalpemos’ by Adam: ‘someplace’ spelled backwards). They live by selling off bits and pieces from the house, blowing most of the proceeds on wine and cannabis. A girl stays with them, then drifts off. Another girl, in the belief that a proper commune is being run on the spot, turns up with her Indian boyfriend Shiva – and sets about procuring a bit of order, for which the others aren’t especially grateful. In the meantime the fifth player in Barbara Vine’s drama has settled in – a waifish, maladjusted creature called Zosie, picked up by Rufus outside a station. Zosie, ‘a mystery girl come out of nowhere’, puts on a pillowcase and endears herself to Adam. Fancy dress and hedonism are the order of the day. A muggy libertarianism has everyone in its grip.

Barbara Vine has a strong story to tell, a story involving a backwards-and-forwards movement between the heady past and the hard-headed present, with the once ragged-trousered reappearing in businesslike dress, the dress of a computer expert, Harley Street gynaecologist or whatever. Her achievement here is to evoke an aphrodisian atmosphere while maintaining a dispassionate attitude towards her characters, the majority of whom she lets in for a nerve-racked inner life.

Female detectives in fiction have been around for quite a while – since 1861, in fact, when an imaginary investigator called Mrs Paschal was going about her business at Scotland Yard. Few of them, before the 1960s at any rate, were conceived in a feminist spirit, but they all, however frivolous or highly-strung or hampered by a bonnet and puffs, did their bit for women’s emancipation – simply by being seen to achieve triumph after triumph in the dodgy area of police work. It’s true that the blow struck for feminism in this manner was an oblique one; and there remained a certain disjunction between the progressive figure of the detective herself and the reactionary context in which she was often landed. Dorothy Sayers was probably the first author to treat a serious feminist issue in a recreative work of fiction, Gaudy Night (1935); and she was going against the mood of the time in doing so, and suffered for it in the critical reception of the book. It’s only in the last twenty-five years or so that the feminist detective heroine has gained an enhancing, rather than a neutralising, background to her activities, and only recently that a thoroughly logical approach to the business of women’s investigating has been adopted. Women are currently scrutinising crimes against other women, whether these have a psychological, a social or a legal bearing. A burgeoning sub-genre, the feminist thriller, has come into being.

It’s come into being, but where is it going? In some cases, we find ourselves back with doves and hawks, only the former are now women, and the latter, men. Barbara Wilson’s Sisters of the Road, for example, shows what those unfortunate enough to be born female in certain parts of Seattle are up against. Abuse starts early, with fathers’ reprehensible urges going unsuppressed. Female degradation in every area has come about at the hands of men. Young girls are beaten, drugged, duped, raped, put on the streets, hit over the head with an iron bar, trussed up naked and left to freeze to death. Innumerable corpses, bones, skulls of missing women litter an area known locally as the Green River. More than half the surviving women have opted for lesbianism, the central character among them.

Once you’ve swallowed Barbara Wilson’s postulated misogyny and its concomitant, the large lesbian population of Seattle, you can get down to enjoying the book, which is a perfectly competent, suspenseful piece of work. It’s not, however, quite as riveting to the senses as its companion novel from the Women’s Press, Hannah Wakefield’s The price you pay, in which the intricate investigation is carried out by a woman solicitor subject to ordinary sexual impulses. You have to read as far as page 132 before the statutory rape-victim-turned-lesbian makes an appearance, inviting us to ponder briefly on the horrors inflicted on women, which include the practice, in such cases, of adding defamation to violation. Dee Street – as the heroine is called – gets very indignant on behalf of the murder victim in the book, a woman journalist with sexual tastes similar to her own, when someone suggests that she had it coming to her. ‘What if I were murdered,’ Dee thinks, ‘and everyone judged me on the basis of my sexual history?’ What indeed.