The Bailey’s Prize this year was recently won by the brilliant Naomi Alderman, with her book The Power (you can read my thoughts on that wonderful novel here). So I thought it was about time I caught up on last year’s winner, The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney.
Everything about this book demands attention. The gaudy orange cover, the graffiti-style placing of the title and review quotes, everything is geared up to present you with a book that grabs you by the throat and gives you a good shake. Which it certainly delivers. It didn’t surprise me that McInerney’s old online persona is @SwearyLady, with a host of followers for her blog that explored the shadier side of Ireland, making no apologies for the frankness of her observations.
The book starts with a stark juxtaposition. On one side of the city of Cork we have Ryan, a troubled but hopeful young boy who is just about to have sex for the first time with a girl he adores. On the other, we see the sticky end of an unknown man in an old lady’s kitchen. This pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Each character is mired in the sludge of a dreary and hateful life, and each one has points of clarity and beauty, and those of loss and despair.
Maureen is the slightly unhinged woman who has just accidentally murdered someone with a blunt instrument. The closest thing to hand was a holy relic – the force of the Catholic church and its ability to ruin the lives of many is certainly explored elsewhere in the novel, so this works as a handy metaphor. Having been kicked out of Ireland forty years ago as an unwed mother, leaving her small baby to be raised by her parents, she is hardly inspired by her return. Her son has become the overseer to a variety of illegal trades including drugs and prostitution, and is feared by all. To help clear the mess his birth mother has made, he brings in Tony Cusack, a hapless drunk who is easy to bribe because of the leverage that having six children affords him. The nervous boy at the start of the book, who has just started his career in dealing drugs, is his oldest son. And let’s not forget poor Georgie. Taken in by the now-murdered Robbie O-Donovan at the tender age of 15, she has been a prostitute and, by association (in order to make it bearable) a coke addict. She too seeks redemption from a religious source but considering how well it’s turned out for others, we can’t hold out too much hope.
While all of this seems pretty bleak, the book has other elements that keep it from becoming too depressing. The characters themselves, the witty dialogue, the glimmers of hope and love that do exist between some of them, give bright points throughout. Of course, these make the difficult times all the more poignant, which is exactly what they should do. McInerney shows us Ireland as far removed from the idyllic landscapes and lilting humour often associated with the countryside, and gives us a striking appreciation of a post-crash country that is awash with poverty and disillusion. All forms of religion are up for a bashing, from the Catholic practice of punishing young pregnant women in the past, to the hypocrisy of modern cults that claim forgiveness. If there is any redemption to be had, we are told that it lies in each other, in our relationships and kindnesses, not in some imagined threat or pardon in the sky.
The prose is electric. I think this is especially true when we see things from the perspective of Ryan. Her fizzy language and electric imagery fit perfectly with adolescence and its heightened sensations. There are some occasions where the metaphorical language sits at odds with the character, particularly that of Ryan’s dad. At those times her descriptions and ideas are a little too on the nose to fit with the alternating perspectives, but it can be forgiven because the language is lovely.
In places, the plot didn’t quite manage to pull things along, and I found myself losing focus on where the characters were. This is perhaps because some of their actions were repetitive, although the repeating of errors is something important to show in them, perhaps a clearer contrast could have been made. The other area of confusion was the time lapses. At points we jump ahead a few months, or even a year or two, which isn’t made entirely clear. In order to keep the links between her characters, there are a couple of coincidences, particularly in Maureen’s narrative, that feel a little stretched, but such is the case when you employ such a large cast to work with. Having said that, it is the force of the characters that pulls us along more than the plot.
For all the them, there is a feeling of despondency. All are cursing their mistakes, thinking about what might have been, and the city almost becomes a character in itself, eating away at the desires of these wretched people who are incapable of breaking free. Perhaps because of his age, or perhaps because of the heightened complexity, Ryan is the character you find yourself rooting for the most. At each step he has a desperate desire to do the right thing, but his beaten down self-perception and horrible home life seem to make it impossible.
In fact, you can follow the character of Ryan in McInerney’s new book, The Blood Miracles. LINK, which follows on from this book. If you haven’t experienced her sinister yet wickedly funny style, make sure you read this book.