I had been waiting for this book to come out in paperback for ages, and was delighted to see it make the Bailey's Prize shortlist, as that made it much more likely that I'd actually manage to read it. In short, I had greatly looked forwards to reading this début novel from Irish blogger and all round Sweary Lady Lisa McInerney. But now having finished it, I really don't know what to think.
The story follows various figures of Cork City's criminal underworld. Seedy and grim, TGH paints a picture of a decaying Ireland very different from the Emerald Isle depicted in the tourist literature. This is a damp and resentful Ireland, wounded by its religion, betrayed by its lawmakers and crippled by financial collapse. The book opens with Maureen, the recently retrieved, butter-wouldn't-melt estranged mother of Cork's leading gangster Jimmy Phelan. Maureen harbours her own grudge against her country; forced to relinquish her born out of wedlock son 40 years ago and exiled to London, she's bitter about the disproportionate amount time paid versus the sin committed. She's owed some bad behaviour really, paid on credit. Son Jimmy, raised a pillar of the community by his grandparents, has recently retrieved her from London and had installed her unceremoniously in an empty brothel.
Maureen has just accidentally killed a trespasser in her dingy flat, conking the intruder on the head with a garish religious trinket. Jimmy, called in to make the deceased disappear subcontracts the job to one of his men- one time pal Tony Cusack, a violent drunk, distraught widower and father of 6. This accidental, almost farcical murder has repercussions for all the novel's characters that span the next five years. The deceased is Robbie O'Donovan, half arsed pimp, waster, junkie and general layabout. He will be vaguely sought by his junkie, prostitute girlfriend Georgie for the next couple of years. Tara Duane, the Cusack's next door neighbour is a grotty gossip monger there to poke the embers when it looks like the flames of implication might be dying down and the shabby glue that holds the characters' fates together.
Our main protagonist is Ryan Cusack, 15 years old at the beginning of the book, he is the son of a violent drunk and desperate to avoid turning into one himself. He graduates from small time dealer, to juvenile prison, to more illustrious networks of criminals, swapping the piano for decks along the way. It's his descent from resentful punchbag to actual angry criminal that is perhaps the most arresting of the book's plots. We see the decisions he makes and the lack of real options open to him. His relationship with his girlfriend (from the age of 15-21) is interesting, quite sweet really, that they stay together through prison sentences and various assorted infidelities, but they seem to swing between genuine, affectionate love and blind seething hatred. They show quite nicely how toxic influences will poison even the most stable, loving (if slightly unlikely) relationships. As the years go on, Ryan's field of vision begins to narrow and his options, never exactly myriad to begin with, seem to decrease in quite an alarming, suffocating way.
Though well written and full of sharp wit and head turning turns of phrase, I never really got my eye in for this book, never hit my stride with it properly. I've really struggled to identify what it was that didn't chime. I was determined to plough through, as I'd heard such promising things and been looking forward it reading it for so long! I guess it just didn't work for me. One thing I will say is that I did struggle with the jumbled chronology- perhaps if I'd felt more immersed this would've come more naturally and presented less of a problem. I know the out of sequence narrative is not an especially complex or new idea, but in this case I just found it made the novel that little bit tougher. I guess I just got a bit left behind- McInerney I found be kind of of prone to hyperbole and a couple of times I'd get to the end of a paragraph and realise that I had no idea what I'd just read...
I honestly don't think this is a bad book, not by any means. It's funny, smart and a really fascinating study of the grotty criminal networks that exist in the festering decay of small, neglected cities. I liked the unsympathetic but recognisable cast of characters, I liked that none of them were really looking for redemption- that none of then would recognise redemption if they should see it. I liked seeing a depressing, seedy city filled with grotty characters that know there's no getting out of rock bottom. I'm sure this is a very recognisable world to many readers, and not just to the Irish.
It just didn't work for me and I'm kind of sad about that.