Inch Levels. Neil Hegarty. Head of Zeus.
Going against trend, Inch Levels is a quiet meditative debut, though this isn’t immediately apparent. The opening prologue describes a crime scene. An eight year old girl, cycling home from school disappears; but this provides a backdrop to a story about a barely functioning family whose lack of communication mars their lives in myriad ways.
Patrick lies in a hospital bed. A teacher in his thirties, he has terminal cancer. He’s a terrible grouch, and has few visitors. He’s cool towards his mother, Sarah, and sister Margaret, and makes it clear that he doesn’t want to see his brother in law, Robert ever again.
Why is it this way? Interspersing scenes from the past, with those showing Patrick in hospital, the author takes us back to Margaret and Patrick’s childhood. There were moments of happiness, but a cloud of disapproval and sheer nastiness hung over their lives. What happened to Sarah to make her so?
And what of Cassie, the strange, nervy woman who lives with the family? Sent from a State Institution to work for Sarah’s father on his wife’s death, Sarah clearly feels she owes the older woman a debt. But why? And what gave her such armour plating?
I was quickly subsumed into this story, and though none of the characters are likeable, I cared, very much, what happened to them as the plot unfolds. I adored this debut. It’s a beautifully judged account of the devastation that can occur when secrets rule our lives.
Skintown. Ciaran McMenamin. Doubleday.
It’s the night of the Northern Irish ceasefire, and there’s trouble afoot. School dropout Vinny Duffy and his friend Jonty get embroiled in a riot, and there’s mayhem as the drug fuelled teenagers clash with their neighbours, the prods, and the police until, fearing the Brits, they flee, and swim to freedom, singing, Night Swimming by REM. Later, sharing bacon sandwiches with other rioters, they relate their stories of the night, smoking dope in a hushed party atmosphere.
It’s such scenes – ones that clarify the reality of the troubled North – that lift the actor, Ciaran McMenamin’s debut above the current crop of fast- paced and racy coming of age debuts. That, and his skill at combining high octane prose with empathy, raw emotion, and a large dose of humour.
The summer in which that escapade takes place, starts when Vinny, after an act of chivalry, finds himself trapped in a car with the enemy. When they crash, he saves his captors, and in return is offered the chance to sell stolen ecstasy tablets. Could it be a trap?
Whilst Skintown can be enjoyed as a music and violence themed romp, it has a deeper intention. Reading between the lines, we learn that at moments of stress, or high spirits, religious differences take a back seat.
Harvesting by Lisa Harding. New Island.
Living in Moldova, Nico is a bright, bubbly twelve-year-old, until she develops into a woman. Then her father, telling her he’s found her a rich husband, sells her to a sex trafficker. After a series of misadventures, she ends up virtually imprisoned in a house in a Dublin ghost-estate, with other young girls forced to provide a specialist service for men.
She shares a room with Dublin teenager Sammy, a spirited, but troubled fifteen-year-old from a dysfunctional middle-class family. The two form a bond. Nico is, perhaps, the first person to truly understand the older girl. Wondering how the tempestuous Sammy succumbs so meekly to men’s demands, she realises that she can only get worked up over other people’s pain. But will Sammy be able to protect the younger girl, and effect an escape?
I wasn’t initially keen to read this book, because of the harrowing subject matter, and although the story based on fact is raw and profoundly shocking, the author holds back from gratuitous details, whilst making us fully aware of the level of abuse.
This is an important book, and should open many a debate. The voices of the two girls, who are so brave, and kind in spite of their mistreatment, will stay in the mind. An actress, Lisa has written plays and short stories. She writes with power and compassion, and is a force to reckon with.
Caroline Preston. This Tumult. Lilliput Press.
This Tumult opens in West Meath in 1938. The Tottenham family rattle around their big house in some despair. They close off one damp room after another, whilst the father retreats into whiskey, the mother into crosswords.
There’s little money or prospects, so the elder sons. Nick and Tony, at just 16 and 15, go to Australia to work on a relative’s ranch. When war comes, Nick joins up, and finds himself in the thick of it in Syria. Taken prisoner, he’s finally released, but the ship, on route back to Australia, is diverted to Sumatra, where eventually, Nick becomes a prisoner of the Japanese. As for Tony, when he comes of age, he becomes a pilot on a Lancaster Bomber.
Their parents, Gerard and Eleanor, sign up with alacrity. Whilst Gerard is sent to Malaysia, in the belief that nothing will happen there, Eleanor’s brilliant mathematic skills make her invaluable in the RAF, where she plots the routes of bombers, so sending out her son each night. And in due course two daughters, Rose and Kate are also involved in keeping the airmen safe.
When Nick is transferred to a prison in Singapore, he finds his father there. And if all this sounds too fantastical, all those facts are absolutely true. The novel is based on the author’s family, and comes after a great deal of research on her part.
Not only is this a fascinating wartime account, it’s also one of angst. As struggling landed, the Tottenham’s never quite fitted in. And they’re well aware that their wartime bravado will do little to endear them to the locals back home.
The Iron Age – Arja Kajermo. Tramp Press.
Set in the 1950’s in rural Finland, this wonderful slim novel opens gently. A small girl tells stories of the neighbours; how one a neighbour’s wife is constantly crying; how another falls asleep at inopportune moments. Cared for by her bad tempered grandmother, whilst her parents farm, she tells of her brothers, who ski along the track to school, for their lessons in humiliation and multiplication.
The simple voice masks the brutality of life in a house where the man, having fought the Russians in the war, thinks women should never be brave, as he harangues his children, lashing out in temper.
‘I learnt to hold my hands over my ears not to hear the rage. I learnt to close my eyes not to see the beatings.’
And later – when at six, the little girl moves to Sweden with her family, and is forbidden to speak her native tongue, she resorts to silence, and finds peace.
‘I never had to worry about saying the wrong thing. There was safety in silence.’
Based closely on the author’s childhood, this debut is as enchanting as it is brutal. Through the build up of everyday scenes, the author gives us a clear picture of a painful childhood, but makes it compelling and heartfelt.
It’s a fascinating account of a country I was shamefully ignorant of, from a writer who has lived in Ireland or the past 40 years. It’s a literary gem. And is another triumph for Tramp Press.
Published in Books Ireland Magazine, July 2017.
© Sue Leonard. 2017.