I’m a fan of Bernard MacLaverty’s writing. He makes it seem so simple (try it at home) which is the mark of a craftsman. I was well into this book before I realised I’d read it before. There’s no harm in reading a good book again.
It’s a coming-of-age drama. The narrator, Martin Brennan is still at St Colum’s school in Derry. Londonderry if you’re a Prod. It’s set just as the troubles in Northern Ireland were kicking off. He has to re-sit because he failed his ‘A-levels.’ That glorious path to University and a better life.
His mum had scrimped and saved and prayed for him. His da posted missing. She’s sure he can do it, if he applied himself – and she’s sure he would, with the help of God.
Brennan’s not so sure. The book begins with him setting off on A Weekend Retreat with other schoolboys in which they stay in a dorm and examine their conscience. Ask the question, if God is calling them to the religious life. Brennan applies himself and God says ‘No’, a firm ‘No,’ even God doesn’t want him.
A priest, as far as him mum is concerned, is the voice of authority, to be consulted on all matters secular and sacred. Father Farquarson had the best seat in the kitchen. He was first served with tea and her home baking when her friends Nurse Gilliard and Mary Lawless came for supper and polite conversation.
‘Could you use a pepper seller for salt then? asked Mrs Brennan.
‘I suppose you could. There’s no law against it…’ said Mrs Lawless.
Kids today had it so easy and were so ungrateful was a backdrop to other troubles. Brennan found he’d a cock, before he was seventeen, and it betrayed him more often than Judas. His consolation was he was mates with other boys at school that didn’t seem to have the same quibbles. He gloried, for example, in being best mates with Gus Kavanagh, who didn’t get red faced talking to girls and claimed he’d had his hole. Kavanagh’s parents was a doctor, his sister was a doctor, it was a given that he too would follow in their paths and become a doctor. His grades were good, much better than poor old Brennan, but there was no guarantee. Kavanagh was also popular with the local jocks at school that played Gaelic football and met for a fly smoke in the locker room and toilets (the daffs).
‘Any jokes?’ Sweeny asked.
Everybody gathered around and Kavanagh grinned and they all leaned forward.
‘There was this guy, right?’ he said. ‘I kid you not. From the county – a big fuckin ganch – and he took this woman out. She was lovely, a real cracker—beautiful hair, big mouth, big tits out to here. Anyway, after the night out, she says to him would you like to come back to my place? And she takes him up the stairs and into the bedroom and lies down on the bed with her legs wide open. And your man says to himself, Jesus, if I play my cards right I might be onto something.’
That’s the setup, or plot. Everything is going well for Kavanagh and not so well for Brennan. Schoolboy living much the same life and living in fear of the psychopathic priest, Condor, head of discipline at school, not a Redemptorist, who had a low view of adolescent boys and was quite prepared to whip them all the way into heaven.
Throw into the mix, Blaise Foley, with the large house and the kind of money that makes Kavanagh look like a car salesman. Foley is a live-in boarder at the school. He’s been expelled from other schools. He’s the catalyst for disequibrium, with strange ideas that are so far out they might even be Protestant. It was Foley’s idea to steal the ‘A-level’ exam papers they needed to sit.
It’s a heist movie, in reverse. They need to return the exam papers, after copying them, so they don’t get caught.
In the final section of the book we have the return to equilibrium. Our narrator is working as a technician in the Anatomy School of Queens University in Belfast. Kavanagh is studying medicine, but put it off for a year to do a Bsc, while he pursues the virginal, Pippa, who’s quite prepared to wait, however, long it takes to please and worship God. She too is studying medicine. Brennan agrees to run an experiment for Kavanagh in the Anatomy rooms, an overnighter, and that’s when he bumps into a backpacker from Australia. A real girl and she seems interested in him. Will Brennan find salvation between her legs, is not the whole of the question or the answer. That would be too easy. Fling in the return of a drunken Foley. There you have it. Read on.