Darkness Wrapped in Sugar

Cork, Ireland

Cork, Ireland

“I’m not into any of it. I’m just pulling you up on assuming your right to religion if you’re going to deny it to whores.”

Let’s pause in the exciting rollercoaster of this blog to quietly read a book. I recommend a novel called The Glorious Heresies, by a contemporary Irish writer named Lisa McInerney. As far as I can tell, this is McInerney’s first novel, a book that has won literary prizes.

I know what you’re thinking. Shouldn’t we hate someone who writes one book and wins prizes for it? It’s a valid question, but I have to say that this is a very good book. The novel is set almost entirely in Cork, Ireland, what they sometimes call Cork City as distinguished from the surrounding County Cork. Nearly every character in the book lives in a state of highly developed dysfunction, and they are using whatever fate gives them to make sure it stays it that way.

If any one character could be considered the main focus of the book, it is Ryan Cusack, who goes from 15 to around 20 years old in the book, though in terms of what he experiences of life, Ryan might be said to go from 15 to 45 in those five years. The author, McInerney, allows us to see that Ryan has a softness and empathy for other people, but he has certainly chosen the wrong life to use those personality traits.

Other characters include Ryan’s father, who seems fated to criminal ineptitude, Jimmy Phelan, a vicious gangster burdened by looking after his difficult mother, Georgie, a prostitute who tries for a while to find religion, and Maureen, Jimmy’s mother, who initiates much of the plot by accidentally killing an intruder who shouldn’t have been there anyway.

Ironically, Maureen is also the conscience of the book, the only person who seems to be honestly trying to steer the other characters in the right direction. Maureen is also in some ways the conscience of the book for Ireland itself. In amongst the gangster goings-on, Maureen recalls a part of Irish history when the Catholic church ran slave labor camps for girls and young women. Technically, the slave camps were called Magdalen “laundries” (the last one closed, amazingly, as late as 1996). Maureen expresses a justified anger at a church that behaves worse than gangsters, and she even tries to take an ineffectual revenge.

In style, McInerney reminds me of other Irish writers who show such a great facility with language. The tone of the book is necessarily harsh, given the subject matter, yet that darkness is often alleviated by a smart, snarky voice, with a very imaginative use of language, as we see in the following examples:

  • An effervescent liar from the phone company had sold Tony a broadband subscription, which had had the effect of lobotomising his three teenagers and giving him the cold comfort of meditative silence.
  • Jesus, he thought. I’m like those gobshites who clap when the plane lands.
  • That he was driven to drink by a taciturn child was as good a reason as being defective in spirit and in genetics…

McInerney also uses Irish slang throughout the story (craic, fecker, bollocks, slash, to cite a few), but in addition to sprinkling the text with particular local words, she has an ear for the sound of Irish speech. This book is a river of rich dialogue, and streams of Irish phrases and syntax flow into that river, currents that grow heavier or lighter depending on the situation (“Era go on outta that,” or “Ah for feck’s sake altogether.”)

In one way, this book reminds me of novels by the British writer Kate Atkinson. When I finish a book by Atkinson, I often think “What a grim, dark story” and yet while I’m reading it, the the pleasure is so great that I don’t notice.

The pleasure of art can sometimes overcome the darkness of the subject, which is what McInerney has accomplished in The Glorious Heresies, wrapping her hollow-eyed leery Corkonians in a rich linguistic tapestry.


Filed under Book Talks

2 responses to “Darkness Wrapped in Sugar

  1. Nothing like a fictional account of my real life relatives fucking up. Erin Go Brah!

  2. Yeah, I have some of those relatives, too.

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