Debut Roundup for March

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 16th March 2018
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Restless Souls by Dan Sheehan. Orion.

When I’m sent a debut that’s been garlanded with advance praise, I tend to be a tad nervous; and when the book’s protagonists are young men who have lost their way in life, I feel a draining sense of déja` vu. But it doesn’t take me long to concede that in the case of Restless Souls, the chosen critics were speaking nothing but the truth.

The novel opens in 1996 at Dublin airport. Karl and Baz wait for their childhood friend, Tom, who, returning from an English clinic, is suffering an acute form of post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s spent three years as a pseudo war correspondent during the siege of Sarajevo, and returns, a husk of his former self, mourning the woman he loves and haunted by remembered scenes of destruction.

Unlikely saviours, since they’ve a load of issues of their own, Karl and Baz take their friend on an American road trip, culminating in a flaky sounding clinic called Restless Souls, that claims to cure the severest cases of those suffering the effects of war. But is Dr Saunders genuine, and has Tom a chance of returning from the brink?

I was engrossed in this novel from the start – engaged by the author’s acute observations of human nature, and the way the friends’ characters gradually emerge through their, apparently mindless, banter. Karl, the narrator, is clearly the leader of the three, but why does he feel responsible for his friend, and surrogate brother Gabriel’s death by suicide?

The novel switches backwards and forwards between the past and the present. A picture is gradually built of the friends as teenagers, when, with Gabriel acting as protector, their futures seemed full of promise. The location switches too – with frequent sections in the Sarajevo of 1992, giving us Tom’s heartrending account of the full horror of the siege.

It’s not clear how well Tom, Baz and Karl will fare in the future – but, with writing like this, their creator is destined for great things. He has combined horror, sadness and comedy to brilliant effect; his structure is masterly; his pacing pitch perfect, and his characters ring eerily true. I was blown away by this; it’s a book I will never forget.

 

Walking Wounded by Sheila Llewellyn. Sceptre.

Walking Wounded also deals with war induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – but Llewellyn, a cognitive behavioural therapist who specialised in PTSD in Northern Ireland, takes us to England, in the aftermath of World War Two, showing how recurring memories of horror, could make the return to civilian life untenable for demobbed servicemen.

It’s 1947, and David Reece is admitted to Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital, having beaten a man to a pulp. Since his return from Burma, he’s been unable to sustain his work, and, in spite of understanding from his former colleagues, and the burgeoning romance with Beth, a childhood friend, he has suffered moments of destruction, and amnesia, and feels unsafe to himself.

He’s put under the care of Daniel Carter, a psychiatrist who believes in psychotherapy, and group therapy, running contrary to his colleague, Hunter, who, favouring the harshest physically induced treatments, believes that leucotomy, (surgically removing the frontal lobes,) provides the greatest release to the patient’s suffering.

Telling the story concurrently, between Daniel and David, the author shows us David’s gradual recovery – and chronicles life at the asylum, which is on the brink of closure. We learn of Daniel’s struggles to adapt to helping these men, destined for a difficult civilian life, and of his own growing doubts. Have the years of hearing of the worst horrors of war finally caught up with his own psychological health?

An expert on the condition, Llewellyn has researched the period thoroughly. The hospital existed; the details of the battles David witnessed in Burma are taken from life; the three experts – Faulk, the psychotherapist Daniel reveres, and the knife happy experts, William Sargant and Wylie McKissock were at the forefront of this highly experimental period of psychiatric history. Whilst their inclusion lends authenticity and fascination for the reader, the author wears her research lightly; their presence enhances the fiction, rather than getting in the way of it.

This is a hugely engrossing look – not just at war induced trauma, but at the dismal place England had become after the war. But it’s the characters – the delicacy with which they are portrayed, and the empathy shown for their condition that made it so special for me. I look forward to more from this author.

 

Striking Back. The Untold Story of Anti-Apartheid Striker. Mary Manning, with Sinead O’Brien. The Collins Press.

Back in the mid-eighties, on a family holiday in Connemara, we were asked what it was like, living in England. We said it was fine, but that we were planning to move to Ireland, and the questioner, a local man said, “Yes. It must be terrible, living there, with all those blacks.”

It would be nice to dismiss this as a rare view, stated by a crank, but reading Striking Back, Mary Manning’s account of the anti-apartheid strike she led in 1984, it’s clear that racism in Ireland of the eighties was widespread.

Working for Dunnes Stores in Henry Street, where there were tensions between workers and their bosses, Mary knew little about apartheid. She was simply following union instructions when she refused to sell two South African outspan grapefruit. But when this action led to her suspension, and the resultant strike gained momentum, she learned more, and she and her co-strikers became passionate in their support for all the South Africans who were affected by it.

Initially, many co-workers supported Mary, but most drifted back to work, leaving just ten. She understood; they had families to feed, and it was becoming clear that management were not going to reinstate her; but she was horrified when some women became virulent opponents; they didn’t just cross the picket line, but took to throwing canteen food on the striker’s heads, whilst calling them, ‘Nigger Lovers.’

There was some public support – over 200 people joined the picket line at weekends, but some of it was misplaced. One elderly woman, hearing Mary’s story, said she would have done the same thing – and refused to sell South African goods. Mary was pleased, until the woman added that she couldn’t bear to touch anything that had been touched by a black man, either.

As it continued, the strike attracted national attention. Whilst the Catholic church and the government denigrated the women, Seamus Heeney and Christy Moore appeared on the picket line. The women met Bishop Desmond Tutu, and were invited to South Africa to see the state of things for themselves – a trip ending in farce when they were arrested at the airport, and flown back. It wasn’t until 2013, when the women were flown to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, that they felt totally vindicated.

At the time, Mary was lauded for her leadership, but was blacklisted for work, and ended up leaving for Australia. This wonderful, Ghost-written account, also contains details of Mary’s mother’s heartache. In the year of Anne Lovett, and the Kerry babies scandal, she suffered appalling depression when her birth mother’s family refused to accept or acknowledge her. Stirring stuff.

 

Published in Books Ireland Magazine, March, 2018

© Sue Leonard. 2018

 

 

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