Friday, 22 May 2015

The Good Son, by Paul McVeigh

The long summer holiday is a time of dread and confusion for 11 year old Mickey Donnelly; fantasist, aspiring actor and in his head, the community trend-setter. Secondary school is looming ever closer, but the cost of a grammar school uniform means that Mickey will be going to his local school, described as one of the roughest in Ireland. His big brother Paddy goes to that school, and he assures Mickey in no uncertain terms that there's no way a "soft, fruity" lad like him will survive there. Deprived of his chance to escape Belfast’s turbulent Ardoyne neighbourhood, Mickey concludes that school is ages away and tries to make the best of his summer; playing with his new dog, Killer and his little sister wee Maggie, running errands for his Mammy and generally keeping out of the way of his drunken and violent Pa whilst trying to avoid getting shot or detonated.

Set during The Troubles, McVeigh's Belfast is raw and brutal, full of paranoia, violence, poverty and fear. The reader understands immediately the claustrophobia and brutality of the life of a Catholic in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. It's all the more terrifying in this instance because the violence comes from all sides and Mickey is as likely to get hurt by one of his own as one of his enemies. Raids and explosions happen with no warning, and it's never clear who's attacking who at any given time. The author really establishes the paranoid watchfulness of a cornered community; there's always the sense that somebody is spying, listening and waiting to get you. The British, the IRA, the gang of cruel boys that call Mickey gay or your own family that could land you in trouble or get you killed. 

I loved how close-up Mickey's world felt- it was a truly child's eye view of a place and a time that seems very hard to appreciate from an outside perspective. Personally I know next to nothing about the Troubles, so this book was quite a learning experience. It's very much a coming of age narrative, unique though Mickey's personal circumstances are, there are things common to all childhoods; skipping games, 10p mixes and first crushes on next door neighbours. It is a heartwrenching and hugely sympathetic narrative about growing up confused and without the Manual of Life. Just made all the more difficult against a backdrop of Civil War.

I absolutely adored Mickey as a narrator- his voice was so strong and he has absolutely heaps of character. Cheeky, imaginative, insecure, hilariously funny. He wants nothing more than for his family to show that they love him, and to be allowed to be himself. The taunts and jeers of the neighbourhood kids were devastating. Mickey's love for his Mammy and his little sister, and The Wizard of Oz and Grease make him gay in their eyes. Despite their teasing and despite growing up knowing nothing but the poverty and destruction of the Troubles, Mickey has a heart of gold. The passages that show how torn Mickey is between fear and love for his Mammy are genuinely difficult to read. I just wonder how they could have been but for the Troubles. 

I was thoroughly impressed by how this novel manages to be accessible and endearing, relateable on some level to everyone, but it manages to pack a real emotional punch too. Vivid though the setting is, it could quite easily be any childhood spent in a war zone- playing in the bomb-sites, curfews and no-go areas. Much of this book put me in mind of the also excellent Girl at War by Sara Novic- a war seen through the eyes of a child that knows nothing else. I found McVeigh's writing to be absolutely captivating- the plotting is so tight it makes your eyes water, there is not a single line or incident that does not further the reader's understanding of the characters, or the feelings and fears of a community virtually under siege. Very much recommend.

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