Set during the last two months of 1979 Louise
Dean's novel is a show stopper, not least because the "troubles"
in Northern Ireland are a very sensitive subject for any English
author to write about without appearing biased, but she pulls
this delicate feat off with aplomb. In
this, her sophomore novel, following
Becoming Strangers, Dean avoids taking sides or even
getting into the politics of the situation in any detail,
instead she focuses on the universal human tragedy that occurs when
neighbors go to war with each other.
She also neatly avoids falling into the trap of simplifying the conflict on purely religious grounds; the story is told from three perspectives: Kathleen Moran, a Catholic mother of four children; John Dunn, a former British soldier, with no vested interest in the conflict, just looking to earn some decent money in order to buy a house with his girlfriend; and Sean, imprisoned in the Maze for bombing a policeman, who becomes an integral cog in the 3-year protest against the prisoners' status as criminals, as opposed to prisoners of war.
Sean, and the other members of H-block, live in self-imposed squalor, naked (as they refuse to wear prison uniform) in freezing cells (because they've broken all the windows as part of their protest). They spend their days writing messages on the walls with their own feces while planning how to take their war to the next level, both within and outside the prison.
Sean's mother, Kathleen, is a staunch Catholic but her God doesn't seem to be much help in the losing battle she's fighting to prevent her family becoming ever more embroiled in the Troubles. Her husband is a drunk, her eldest son is locked up in the Maze, her younger children are increasingly caught up in the fighting and soldiers routinely search her house for weapons, while others patrol the streets outside her house. Money is always tight; and a quick affair with a handsome IRA spokesman only momentarily lifts her from the drudgery of her life, while burdening her with guilt on top of the tragedy that is her normal everyday existence. Kathleen is a mass of contradictions; on the one hand she's proud that her eldest son has been locked up for the cause of a united Ireland (even though she's never been out of the northern counties of Ireland herself) but terrified of the harm that could come to him in prison; she doesn't understand how her eldest daughter could enjoy living in England but has no problem claiming benefits off the English government herself.
On the other side of Belfast, in a rented house in the Protestant sector of the city, lives John Dunn. Dunn doesn't have strong views on the politics of the matter, in fact it's not clear that he's ever really questioned the political stance that he's been born into by dint of his English Protestant heritage. He thinks he's seen everything and, after a career in the army, being a prison officer in the Maze can't be that bad, but he's unprepared for the brutality of life in the Maze. On top of this, the IRA start a campaign to kill prison officers making him a target 24/7, and he has a lot more to lose than he used to now that he has a girlfriend and an 18-year-old son that he didn't know existed until a few months ago.
Set against the real-life events of the period, the two primary story-lines never fully meet; instead they contrast each other, grimly showing the futility of the many wasted lives and the day-to-day realities of life for the everyday people on the front line, entrenched in their opinions but far removed from the political decision making process.
This review was originally published in February 2007, and has been updated for the February 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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