- 08 Apr 22
When it came time to pick the Hot Press Books Of The Year for 2021, there was no hesitation in placing Louise Kennedy's debut short story collection, The End Of The World Is Cul De Sac, at the top of the Irish Fiction pile. As an honour, it’s something akin to a guest spot on Oprah’s couch and I don't doubt that record sales and a beyond the dreams of avarice bank account bump followed, and rightly so. Not only did the collection display blinding technique, imagination, and originality; it also remembered to tell a few good stories. That might seem like an obvious ambition when you're sitting down to write something, but I get sent a lot of books.
Anyway, as expected Kennedy's debut full-length novel, Trespasses, lives up to, and even surpasses, the promise shown in that previous volume. This is the love story of Cushla Lavery, a catholic primary school teacher, who also helps out in her brother Eamonn’s bar, in 1970s Belfast. We’re not specifically told the era in question but Johnny Giles is playing for Leeds, Chinatown is in the cinema, and Cockney Rebel are on the radio, so it's an educated guess. The eight track cartridges in the car when Cushla and her friend Gerry get stopped by soldiers on the way to a party give the game away too. The children in her school speak the vernacular. “Boobytrap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now.”
If those kids didn’t have enough to be dealing with there’s also Father Slattery, the kind of tormenting bastard of a priest that those of us of a certain age will remember, who terrorises these small children with horror stories of sectarian violence. Of all the children, Davy McGeown is possibly the worst off, living in the house at the end of the estate where the ‘Taigs Out’ graffiti indicates why his family doesn’t belong there. Cushla goes out of her way to help him when others don’t. In an atmosphere like this, it’s best to scrub Wednesday’s ashes off your forehead before serving in the bar, even if the bar is slightly outside of Belfast, in a mixed village that hasn’t seen as much trouble as other areas.
Cushla meets Michael, a Protestant solicitor. He’s married but an affair intensifies. Kennedy’s keen eye perfectly paints this across the barricades amour; she meets his posh friends and feels inadequate and sense that their looking down their collective noses, the couple spend a weekend in Dublin, although “even after six years of carnage Belfast was cleaner”, and Cushla doesn’t quite know what’s missing until she realises that there’s no security forces on Grafton Street, and people are very worried indeed about certain parties finding out about what’s going on. Cushla hears of Michael’s previous dalliances and knows they’re doomed, but what can she do? She loves him.
This probably says more about me and the place and time I grew up in, but when I read a book set in the North, especially in this period, I am conditioned to expect bad things to happen. Do they? Don’t they? Go and buy this great book to find out. Either way, you’ll savour Kennedy’s funny, poignant, well-observed, and, crucially, impartial story-telling. Hers is an exceptional talent.
- Live Review
- 29 May 23