This week as part of Reading Ireland Month, I’m looking at the Contemporary Irish Novel.
Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son has earned expected comparisons to Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, mainly as both are a coming-of-age tale featuring a likeable main character surviving in difficult circumstances. The Good Son is its own story though, set as it is, in the Ardoyne in Belfast in the ‘80s, with the Troubles as its backdrop.
It is the start of the school holidays and Mickey Donnelly has just lost his chance to go to grammar school because his feckless father has drunk all the money and the family can’t afford the uniform or the transport.
In nine weeks then, he will have to go to St Gabriel’s Secondary where he knows he will be torn apart by the other kids. Because Mickey is different. He is smart, he is witty and he wants to be an actor. However, the only opportunity he gets to flex his acting muscles are when he tries to convince the local kids to leave him alone.
He’s got the Ardoyne Hard Man Dander too. I might need this for St Gabriel’s. I catch up, puff my chest, hands in pockets, chin stickin’ out and point my knees out as I walk. The Dander. I must be doin’ OK because he doesn’t sleg me.
He loves his mother and his sister Wee Maggie, but is getting too old to play with her anymore. Despite being in love with Martine, Mickey isn’t sure about his sexuality, which isn’t helped by the abuse he gets from the other kids. Going to the local grammar school was his chance to get away from his environment and without the promise of something better, the nine weeks of the summer holidays feel like a countdown to disaster. As his ma tries to hold the family together and his brother Paddy gets more and more involved with the local paramilitaries, Mickey starts to realise that not getting into grammar school might be the least of his worries.
As the clock ticks down to his first day at secondary school, tensions are rising in the Ardoyne. Mickey’s da has left, taking the TV and video with him. ‘Uncle’ Tommy and big brother Paddy are hiding suspicious packages around the house and, in a painful and poignant sequence, Mickey gets caught up in a devastating explosion.
What McVeigh does with great skill in The Good Son, is to carefully balance the comic with the dramatic. Mickey Donnelly is a fantastic character, believable, charming and entertaining, but still caught in that twilight time between childhood and puberty – wanting to learn how to kiss girls, while still crying for his ma when he needs her.
Indeed, it is Mickey’s love for his ma that drives the narrative and as he does his best to protect and help her, his childhood innocence gives way to something a lot more knowing and much more foreboding. The Ardoyne is a place where loose talk costs lives, a kind of Wild West, with its own set of rules.
Everybody’s movin’ to the Ardoyne cuz we don’t pay the TV license. And nobody mugs you or burgles you – except your own Da! – or breaks our laws cuz the IRA shoots your kneecaps off
There is a familiarity to the narrative here, and as Mickey gets drawn into a darker world than he is used to, there is never the feeling that he is in any real danger. The ending might stretch credibility but it feels like the ending that Mickey, and his Ma, deserve. The characterisation of Mickey and the love between him and his Ma is the beating heart of this lovable novel.
She laughs. We laugh. Laugh and laugh like I’ve never seen my Mummy laugh before. I’m a good boy. She makes my heart hurt happy. My Mummy loves me. We don’t say that in our house either.
About the Author:
The Good Son, Paul’s debut novel, won The Polari First Novel Prize and The McCrea Literary Award. It was shortlisted for The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, the Prix du Roman Cezam in France and a finalist for The People’s Book Prize. The Good Son was chosen as Brighton’s City Reads 2016 and was given out as part of World Book Night 2017. Paul has written comedy, essays, flash fiction, a novel, plays and short stories, and his work has been performed on radio, stage and television, and published in seven languages.
Born in Belfast, Paul began his career as a playwright before moving to London where he wrote comedy shows, which were performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in London’s West End. Moving into prose, his short stories have been published in anthologies & literary journals and read on BBC Radio 3, 4 & 5. Hollow was shortlisted for Irish Short Story of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2017. Most recently, his stories have been televised on Sky Arts, recorded for 14-18 NOW and published in Common People edited by Kit de Waal and Being Various for Faber. He edited the anthology Belfast Stories, which I reviewed on the blog and will edit Common People Ireland.
Paul teaches creative writing and judges international literary prizes including, in 2018, the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, the Seán Ó Faoláin International Short Story Prize and the International Dylan Thomas Prize. He reviews for The Irish Times and co-founded the London Short Story Festival, of which, he was Director and Curator for 2014 & 2015. He is associate director at Word Factory, ‘the UK’s national organisation for excellence in the short story’ (The Guardian). You can check out more about Paul and his work on his informative blog.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!