When John Cole arrives at a former Northern Irish military aerodrome to identify a woman’s body, old secrets start to surface. But what is the connection with Hooper, a black serviceman who hung in World War Two for sexual misdemeanours? And where does the former children’s home fit in to the whole scenario?
In The Vogue, taking his time lines from 1945, 1972 and 2000, Eoin McNamee expertly blends three stories – linking them all, and telling his tale in sumptuously rich prose. The Vogue has the page turning appeal of a thriller but is something much more than this. It’s themes, of corruption and collusion, featuring intense cruelty to children, and to women, makes sense of the Northern Irish troubles yet to come.
It’s a relentlessly dark tale, steeped in atmospheric menace, yet is utterly compelling. How did he keep up the momentum?
“I suppose because they are real places and real memories of where I come from,” says Eoin, as we chat in Dublin. “The house I was brought up had a walk-in attic beside my room. And American airmen who had been billeted there during the war had written their names in the rafters.
“There was a massive airbase near us with 6 or 7 miles of runway where tens of thousands of troops had passed through during the war. The aircraft were used for the D-day Landings. There were massive casualties in the Battle of the Bulge, so men came through to war and never came back. I always had ghost soldiers in my head.”
Eoin now lives in County Sligo – a place he describes as a refuge – but his upbringing in Kilkeel, County Down, was what, probably, propelled him into writing.
“There are any number of starting points,” he says. “I was about 8 when the troubles broke out. It could be walking into the house and seeing this man shaking in the corner. He was a Catholic policeman who had been shot umpteen times but survived. I asked him what had happened, and he said he had been in a car-crash.”
So, he was keeping it a secret?
“Well, everyone was. My mother didn’t want people to know he was in the house, but he couldn’t go home, because that was where he had been shot.”
Eoin’s father, a lawyer, was involved in torture cases, and he kept all the statements in the house.
“I would be reading William Blake and Yeats because my mother was keen on poetry, and then reading these real, immediate statements of immense brutality. I remember the inky smell coming off those documents, and the print coming off in your hands.”
Did he live in constant fear?
“It’s more a state of hyper vigilance,” he says. “The whole society is operating at that level. You noticed when you crossed the border, as I did, every day, for school. You put down the weight you had been carrying and took a deep breath. You seemed to hold it until the next time you crossed the border.”
There were constant security checks, with x-raying of bags long before airports took up the practise.
“And you would never say anything on the phone, because you knew someone was listening.”
Then there was the fake news.
“We had that going on forever! You saw something happen, and then you see the opposite on the evening news. I suppose I write because of a refusal to accept other people’s version of yourself, and of the reality you grew up with.”
Eoin started out with a romantic view of what a writer was. Borrowing a house from his uncle, he secreted himself away in the Mourne Mountains to fulfil some bohemian ideal. Disillusion followed.
“It was derelict with no electricity or running water, and there were plenty of mice. It was the time of the hunger strike and was not a place for a young man to be on his own. It demoralised me, and at the end of it I grabbed a lifeline, which was college.”
By the time he graduated from Trinity College Dublin, with a law degree, he had decided to give writing another go. This time, he realised the hard work it involved, and reckoned he’d need four or five years of apprenticeship.
“It seemed to be a process of eliminating all the voices until you got to the one true one.”
There were two novellas – the first, with Raven Press and the second with Penguin, before Eoin’s first novel, the Booker longlisted Resurrection Man, published by Picador in 1994 caused a sensation. He wrote the screenplay too, for the film of 1998. Based on the Shankill Butcher, it was, he says, a story that demanded to be told.
“A lot of fiction from the North sees itself as having to educate and draw lines and constructions. With Resurrection Man I was saying, ‘well, there is no morality here; people are being shot and the gunmen enjoy doing it. Ask yourself that question?’”
All his novels since have taken an atrocity from the North as its starting point. Except for 12.23, which focused on the death of Princess Diana. Why did he pen that one?
“I picked up a book about it in a second-hand shop and started getting the tang of a conspiracy theory, and the sinister buzz of implication. I read about the empty streets of Paris and thought, this sounds a lot like where I came from.”
Coming out for the 10th anniversary of the Princess’s death, the book was not well received.
“I remember a review on Radio 4 which was the worst review I have ever heard. The final accusation was, he writes sentences without verbs.” He laughs. “I still think it’s good. I’m still proud of it.”
The Vogue of the title of the new novel, exists. It’s a now derelict cinema in Kilkeel, but the book is entirely fictitious. Set in a town where a fundamentalist kind of Protestantism rules, it examines how unconsciously you’re affected by the things you can’t redeem.
“That’s the whole thing with the North. How do you float back from the victims you have taken all your life?”
Eoin has had the three separate stories in his head for some time, but he thought they were separate novels. It wasn’t until he wrote two episodes of a TV drama – a precise process which he hated, and indeed was fired from, that he began to see how a narrative might link the three.
“I went back to the whole idea of story; where you sit round the campfire in the dark and the story describes a fear beyond your life and keeps fear away from you.”
It took a ferocious amount of work, but eventually the three stories clicked into place, in an organic way.
“There was something beyond mechanics going on.”
And, after a lot of toing and froing with his editor, and the addition of some clarification and sign posting in the text, the novel was complete.
“Apparently I’m an enormously difficult, cranky person to edit,” says Eoin. “I have a reputation. I remember with Resurrection Man I fought with my editor over the only word he wanted to change.” He chuckles. “And I won!”
To me, The Vogue is a story of loss. Loss of innocence, love, hope and freedom. And of life itself. Whilst agreeing with my definition, Eoin says that to him, it’s about three defeated love stories.
“And it looks in a certain way about the authoritarian between men and women,” he muses. “And authorial men are very topical.”
So, in a way, this is his ‘Me too’ book? He nods, then laughs and defers, saying he wouldn’t go that far.
“I can see my daughter’s face if I claim to be part of the Me-Too movement!”
The Vogue by Eoin McNamee. Faber and Faber: €14.58. Kindle: €5.25.
Published in The Irish Examiner, 16th February, 2019
© Sue Leonard. 2019.