Geraldine Quigley’s affecting new novel Music Love Drugs War, is set in Derry in 1981 at the height of the hunger strikes. While I was reading it, a bomb exploded outside the Courthouse in Derry city centre.
It is a stark reminder that although we have come a long way in Northern Ireland, this precarious and precious thing we call peace is always at risk and there are many who would like a return to the violence of the past.
Music Love Drugs War opens as Bobby Sands lies dying in a hospital wing of the Maze prison. It is 17 April, Good Friday and Derry is ablaze with rioting and violence. Despite this, a group of teenagers at the end of their school career are hanging out at their favourite bar, The Cave and listening to post-punk and ska, drinking and getting off with each other while they try to decide what to do with their lives.
Liz McLaughlin and her brother Paddy are with their mates – Orla, Sinead, Noel and Christy. They are all about to take their exams and are weighing up their life options. It will soon be time to leave home, head to university or get jobs. Liz’s boyfriend Kevin is older than the gang and has history he would like to forget. Orla has started seeing Peter, a new addition to their crowd.
Despite the ongoing violence as a backdrop, their lives still centre on teenage concerns about relationships and exam results but when Paddy and Christy are drawn into the nightly rioting against the British soldiers on the street, the reality of the outside world is about to come crashing down on all of them.
The book is narrated by a range of voices, but mainly centres on the siblings Paddy and Liz. At the beginning, it suffers from the introduction of many characters and it takes a while to settle. There is, at times, a lack of focus and too much time spent with minor players, but as the book narrows in on Paddy’s descent into sectarian violence and the impact this has on his wider family, it soon finds its feet.
Where Quigley’s writing is particularly effective is in her depiction of the difficulty in trying to live a normal life under the looming shadow of the Troubles. The joys of teenage life – the drinking, the dancing and the relationships – are all dulled by the threat of violence and the need to keep your head down.
The bang on the door in the middle of the night. The fear. They used to say, years before, that a volunteer had six months on average before he was either inside or dead. How much shorter were the odds now?
Ordinary family life is presented with a detailed warmth and it is an interesting contrast to the realistic scenes of IRA manoeuvres and police interrogations, which are at times uncharacteristically amusing. The ineptitude of these volunteer ‘soldiers’ contrasting vividly with the harsh reality of the cause for which they are fighting and the casualties that it brings about.
This exploration of the clash of worlds is where the book really excels. At the time, soldiers on the street and the threat of trouble in the air felt like normality, but reading back on it from today, the unreality of what was happening is striking. Here, a walk home from the club where you have been dancing to the New Romantics, can turn just based on being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
While exploring the effects of violence on an entire generation of young people, Quigley also explores the fall out for the wider family unit – whether those families be close, or fractured. The relationship between Paddy and his father Jim is sensitively handled and shows how love can manifest itself not through words, but through deeds.
Quigley is a compassionate writer and her debut is shot through with humour and emotion, despite the subject matter. Her exploration of family life, growing up and the teenage kicks that The Undertones championed has a poignancy and sharp sense of place that marks her out as a writer to watch.
About the Author:
Geraldine Quigley was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1964, the youngest of a family of eleven. She gained a degree in Irish History and Politics at Magee College, University of Ulster, as a mature student, in 1993 and worked in retail for many years. She began writing in her late forties and took part in the Penguin WriteNow mentoring scheme.
She currently works full time for an insurance company and continues to live in Derry with her husband of 33 years. She has a son and two daughters, and one grandchild. Music Love Drugs War is her first novel.
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