Glenn Patterson’s Fat Lad has long been described as one of the quintessential Belfast novels. The title comes from a mnemonic used in Northern Ireland to remember the names of the six counties – Fermanagh, Antrim, Tyrone, Londonderry, Armagh, Down – and yet the entire book is set in the capital city.
Drew Linden, Belfast native, is returning home. It is 1990 and Northern Ireland is in the grip of sectarian violence. Drew doesn’t want to be at home. He’s been in Manchester since he went to University and rarely gives the city a second thought. But now he’s been offered the post of Assistant Manager of Bookstore, a chain of hip bookshops and for the sake of his career, he can’t turn the job down. So, he leaves is adopted city and his girlfriend to work in Belfast for a year. If he can last that long.
As he reignites his lukewarm relationship with his family and meets old school friends and acquaintances, it doesn’t take long for Drew to realise that he hasn’t moved on from his childhood at all. As a child, he blamed himself for The Troubles, believing that if he hadn’t been born, they would never have happened. The random violence that his father meted out to him growing up only seemed to reinforce this feeling of guilt and shame.
The story of the Linden family is told through different narrative voices – and as the stories of his wider family down through the generations become known – the history of one family becomes the history of a city.
The fabric of the city of Belfast is woven tightly throughout the narrative of Fat Lad as the novel explores the topography of Belfast and brings its history vividly to life, particularly through the character of Aunt Peggy, who knows everyone’s business. The present day situation, with its random violence and moments of terror is deftly handled and Patterson does not shy away from the unique nature of this city that always seems to be defined by one side or by the other and where one small second can change a life forever.
Five hundred yards was a long way in Belfast. A world away. Significant distances were measured rather in tens of yards: the distance between Springmartin and New Barnsley, Suffolk and Lenadoon, between Percy Street, Conway Street, Manor Street, and their antipathetical erstwhile other halves.
Significant distances were the span of a single borderline street, the thickness of a wall, a wrong turn, a foot out of place, a whisker, a hair’s breadth, the skin of your teeth.
Patterson is a writer with a light touch and a wonderful ear for dialogue and even the slightest of characters are drawn with warmth and humanity. The book is peppered with some wonderful descriptions. Someone’s smile ‘had all the joy of a facial exercise’ while another watches their new television set constantly ‘half-expecting the contents to run out at any moment, like a seaside slot machine’.
The narrative sweep of Fat Lad is impressive encompassing the history of a city over nearly 80 years. As Drew comes to accept his family and the city that has forged him, questions of identity and emigration are explored with humour and a light touch – the trademark of Glenn Patterson’s writing.
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