A fizzy little corker of a debut novel set in Cork (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!) and my first entry in the #EU27Project. Lisa McInerney takes us into the lives of those who have seen little of the Celtic Tiger benefits: misfits, rebels, people who have just given up.
The plot is quite complex and takes place over a number of years, but let’s see if I can briefly whet your appetite. First, there’s Ryan Cusak, 15 years old at the start of the novel, who can’t wait to grow up and get his revenge against his drunkard of a father, who often beats him. Although he is quite bright at school and keen to impress his girlfriend, the seemingly unattainable Karine D’Arcy, he is also a drug dealer and just can’t stop getting into trouble.
Tony is Ryan’s Dad, a widower with six children who is overwhelmed by life. When an old mate of his, Jimmy, a notorious Cork gangster, asks him to help with a little ‘cleaning’ work (i.e. getting rid of a body), he just can’t turn down that opportunity. But, of course, he is not quite up to the standard expected of a criminal.
Jimmy has a reputation, Tony more of a stench.
It’s Jimmy’s mother, Maureen, who mistook the man for an intruder and killed him with a Holy Stone, so her son is sorting out the mess. Maureen has been dragged back to Cork from London by her son’s misplaced sense of loyalty and guilt and housed in an abandoned quayside building which Jimmy had previously used as a brothel. Maureen had Jimmy out of wedlock, and was forced to flee her hometown when her parents took the baby away from her and raised him as their own. So she is remarkably clear-eyed about Jimmy’s shortcomings and completely at odds with the Catholic church, resentful of her ‘years of penitence with no sin to show for it.’
The victim was a skinny junkie called Robbie and initially no one knows or cares about his disappearance except for his girlfriend, ex-hooker Georgie. But then Tony and Ryan’s interfering neighbour Tara, described as ‘a vulture feeding off carcasses’, mentions something about Tony and Robbie knowing each other, so Georgie begins to investigate. Along the way, she finds refuge with a group of missionaries, even though she doesn’t believe at all in God, and meets Maureen during her door-to-door distribution of flyers duty. I’ll quote a bit more extensively selections from this scene, because it gives a good feel for the author’s brilliant use of humour.
‘I’m here…’ Georgie said, and faltered, and the woman raised her eyebrows.
‘Have I been expecting you?’ Her voice was a tart growl.
‘I’m here,’ Georgie began again. ‘To spread the word of… of Jesus Christ.’
‘You’d think He’d send someone less scatty,’ said the woman. ‘But fine. What has He got to say for Himself?’
Georgie thrust one of the leaflets at the woman.
‘Oh, He’s written it down for you,’ said the woman. ‘Handy.’
‘He says… He says: Go unto … go into the world and proclaim the gospel to… creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’
‘Harsh fecker, isn’t He?’
George wilted and Clover beckoned her away, but the woman said, ‘What are you doing out preaching on a day like this, anyway? And in your condition?… You want to convert me, you better do it now, because this missive is going in the bin as soon as I close the door… Are you coming in or not?
‘There’s so much in the leaflet,’ Georgie said.
‘Are you going to deny an old lady her consultation, little preacher? Who goes door-to-door and declines the first invitation they get to pontificate?’
Of course, the digs at organised religion are very Irish, clearly showing the love-hate relationship every Irish person seems to have with Catholicism. But, as the title of the book indicates, this book is about more than that, it’s about all kinds of ‘heresies’, subverting the established ‘way of seeing things’, providing an alternative to mainstream narrative. The author gives us an insight into the life of the least regarded elements of Irish society and, although these individuals might annoy us with their stupid and self-destructive decisions, they are also acting within the confines of a bleak, depressing town with few if any future prospects. The damage they inflict on themselves are to a certain extent predetermined.
Yes, this is not cheery subject matter, but the author tackles this dingy world of prostitutes, addicts and criminals with verve and vigour. This is fierce tragicomedy at its best, and I found myself laughing and crying on the same page. This book is all about the unforgettable, pitch-perfect voice, raucous storytelling and the moving, pitiful, infuriating characters, with all their flaws.