It is the 1980s in Dublin and Sonny Knolls is 16 years old. A schoolboy possessed of good looks but little opportunity, he works part-time for the local butcher and occasionally helps his Dad, a labourer, on the weekends.
Sonny is a sensitive boy in a world where sensitivity is not in favour. The tough working-class environment he lives in is one where emotions are distrusted and therefore contained. His father gambles and his mother is forever at the kitchen sink – ‘peeling, always peeling’ – feeding Sonny and his five older brothers. Sonny takes refuge in his moments alone in the outside toilet and with and drinking when he can with his only friend Sharon. Sharon feels equally lost, and tries to find self-worth through male attention.
Bordering the world of child and man, Sonny feels lost and hopeless, drinking when he can afford it and avoiding his cramped home-life.
Inside of you a howl of feeling started, just under the surface. An alone feeling you couldn’t keep from yourself
His job at the butcher’s is not what he wants, but is what he has come to expect. At a meeting with a career’s teacher, he mentions a wish to be a painter and is applauded for his ambition in the house decoration business.
Books were not for boys who cut meat
He knows he is at the point in life where he needs to grow up but he cannot see a path ahead. His strongest relationship is with his mother, but she has no time to for him now he is growing older.
Not so many years ago you would race home to her after school, just to know she was alive and hadn’t left you in that house of men, without a soft thing in the world.
The ‘soft thing’ Sonny yearns for – love – arrives where he least expects it. While helping his father with a labouring job on the affluent Montpelier Parade, he meets Vera. Vera is an older woman living alone in a large Georgian house filled with books and music. She is wealthy and intelligent and an unlikely affair ensures.
Geary handles this romance with enough delicacy and nuance as to make it entirely believable. Vera shows Sonny a world that he could never have imagined – a world of culture, literature and comfort. What Vera sees in Sonny is less obvious to begin with and for a while, the thing that seems to draw them to each other is a shared experience of pain and loneliness. When the true nature of Vera’s involvement with Sonny becomes apparent, the revelation is heartbreaking rather than sensationalist.
I think years from now you’ll understand this and hate me for it
Love and hate are closely entwined in this relationship, as are sex and death. A sense of foreboding lingers over the novel from the beginning, when Sonny sees a customer knocked down by a van outside the butcher’s shop. The image of the corpse later haunts Sonny while he masturbates – an ominous metaphor for what is to come.
It was the sorry that was deeper inside you and made you heavy and sad and think that it would be nice to be asleep or somewhere else.
The intimate second person narrative voice works extremely well here. The reader is inside Sonny’s head as he struggles to articulate his new and unimaginable feelings without the proper vocabulary. It is clear that he has found himself in a situation where he is completely out of his depth, more than aware of the social and intellectual gulf between himself and Vera – ‘she had to dim herself down so you could see’. On some level, he is aware that their relationship can be nothing but finite. That Vera is a mother figure to Sonny is clear from the beginning and as he grows away from his own mother, he grows closer to Vera, hoping to bring her a comfort he cannot bring to his own mother.
You were the hero in your dream of saving her, even with everything you didn’t know about her.
You had often thought of saving your mother, but saw how you had given up being her hero.
Sonny’s voice is perfectly pitched and Geary is adept at presenting well-rounded believable characters. Vera is not presented as an idealised femme fatale; she can be cold and cruel. Sharon too provides a realistic counterpoint to Vera – she is the sharp impetuous girl that Sonny should probably be with but never will. Sharon provides some light relief in what is an often dark story. We know there can be no happy conclusion for Sonny and Vera, but that does not detract from the beauty and honesty at the centre of their unusual relationship.
There was a great burning at the centre of you, and the world was somewhere else.
Montpelier Parade is an assured debut – a dark improbable romance that is subtle and moving, with rich characterisation and it marks Geary out as a writer to watch.
About the Author:
Karl Geary was born in Dublin, and moved to New York City at age sixteen. He co-founded two East Village institutions, the music venue Sin-e, and later the Scratcher.
He has worked as a scriptwriter (Coney Island Baby), and an actor (Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, and Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall), and has adapted and directed Dorothy Parker’s You Were Perfectly Fine for the screen.
He lives in Glasgow with his wife, the actor Laura Fraser and their daughter.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!