Continuing my monthly look at literature from Northern Ireland, this month I am talking about Cuckoo by Linda Anderson.
Cuckoo, a strikingly political and feminist novel, was written in 1986 and recently received a welcome and timely republishing by the brilliant Turnpike Books, during the year of the 50th anniversary of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement.
Set in 1982, Cuckoo follows Fran McDowell, ‘a bystander in life’, who has left her native Belfast to settle in London, trying to escape the trauma of her past. Life in London is not proving successful for Fran and indeed, it is a complicated place to be a Protestant single woman from Northern Ireland.
We Irish are just one big homogenous bunch of demented Paddies, but in the northeast corner of Ireland where I come from, we’re British citizens. Some are reluctant and some are enthusiastic about it.
Fran has lost her job and has accidentally fallen pregnant following a brief relationship (if it can even be called that). A chance encounter with another woman, Caroline, provides Fran with a lifeline, and she becomes a live-in nanny to Caroline’s child, providing her with a home and some stability within which to navigate her own pending entry into motherhood.
My body was no longer an aimless assemblage of busy gurgling pipes. It was purposeful flesh, tenanted and privileged. ‘Mother’. I blossomed I the shade of that word, receiving the smiles and nods from strangers like little sprinkles of holy water
Becoming a mother and entering into Caroline and her husband Dominic’s comfortable world of books and culture sets Fran on a path of self-discovery. In order to come to terms with the violence she has experienced in Northern Ireland, Fran realises that she must put that experience into a global context and concludes that the only way she can make a better life for herself and her daughter is through the action of political activism rather than just words.
Drawn to the Greenham Common protests, Fran sees an opportunity to make her world a better place, but hers is not a misplaced idealism, she is willing to make sacrifices, including going to jail, to create a future she can believe in.
“What will happen, Marilyn?”
“Haven’t got my crystal ball handy!”
“What will happen? To us? To everybody?”
“Out of our hands, girl. It’s not our world.”
“Yes, it is”, I whispered
Fran is a fascinating character, complicated and spirited, constantly fighting against what is expected of her.
Keep your head down. Follow the routes festooned with rewards. Go to University and scoop up the qualifications, the status, the contacts. An entrance fee to a cushy job. So long as you keep faith with the taboos and niceities, the emblams and slogans of our little set. Our little sect.
She can also be frustratingly passive at times, but the structure of the book is such that her earlier behaviour becomes clearer the more we read. About halfway through the novel, Anderson takes us back into Fran’s past to explore her upbringing, her difficult family life and her painful experiences during the early days of the Troubles.
It is a clever technique, shedding light on Fran’s behaviour and making her more understandable, more relatable. Ultimately what Anderson shows is a woman who never stops believing in her own ability to grow and to understand herself. Her initial passivity to the onslaught of bigotry, poverty, and accidental pregnancy becomes a sign of strength, a sign that this is a woman who can, ultimately, look after herself.
Cuckoo is a beautifully written book, with sharp, lively prose and some great word play. Despite the subject matter, there are some moments of great humour. When looking back on her past Fran notes
My grandfather died that month, calling attention to himself for the first time in years
Cuckoo’s themes of women and particularly women from Northern Ireland, finding their voice in politics is grounded in the time it was written. There is a tendency to forget that Northern Ireland has Nobel Prize winners other than Heaney – as Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan won the Peace Prize in 1976 for their work with Community of Peace People, an organization dedicated to promoting a peaceful resolution to The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
These were active, engaged women, women like Fran, working daily to bring about change in their own communities and lives.
In 1985, The Female Line, the first anthology of Northern Ireland Women’s Writing was published by the Northern Ireland Women’s Movement. It is telling that Fran wants to be a writer, the agent of her own story, because, she says
Words have power, and power was what I lacked.
Fran is no longer content to be a bystander in her life and Anderson charts her personal growth with intensity and clear-eyed wit.
The fact that female writers from Northern Ireland are having another resurgence thanks in part to the new anthology Female Lines, edited by Linda Anderson and Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado and also thanks to Anna Burns Booker Prize win, means that Cuckoo feels as vivid and timely as it would have 40 years ago and deserves to be widely read.
About the Author
Linda Anderson was born and educated in Belfast. She is an award-winner writer of short stories and novels, who has led creative writing programmes at Lancaster University and the Open University. She is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland.
Cuckoo was reissued by Turnpike Books in 2018. Turnpike Books are dedicated to publishing new editions of a series of books that will build into a history of Northern Ireland’s twentieth-century literature, and a parallel series of the major English short story writers. They have re-published Maurice Leitch, Ian Cochrane and Janet McNeill.
Turnpike Books is based on the hope that if a writer has something of value to say then that is reason enough to publish their work and their championing of Linda Anderson is an attempt to redress the marginalisation of the Northern Irish female voice.
An interview with Linda Anderson in the Irish News
Check out the other great books available from Turnpike Books
A review of Female Lines in The Irish Times
Linda Anderson on Female Lines in the Belfast Telegraph
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!