Trespasses — politics made personal amid Northern Ireland’s Troubles

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Louise Kennedy’s debut novel plunges us into Northern Ireland in 1975 — one of the bloodiest years of the Troubles, despite a ceasefire.

Cushla Lavery is a 24-year-old Catholic primary school teacher living with her mother in a garrison town near Belfast. She sometimes helps her brother out at the family pub, where a “fifty-odd” married man catches her eye. Michael Agnew is one of few Protestant barristers speaking out against the non-jury trials of the Diplock courts and taking cases challenging the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the predominantly Protestant police force. Cushla and Michael embark on an affair — secret except to a group of Michael’s friends, who treat her, “the token Taig”, with condescension.

At the insistence of the headmaster, each morning Cushla’s class of seven-year-olds recounts The News — an inventory of beatings, bombings and shootings taking place terrifyingly close to home.

Cushla takes an unpopular pupil, Davy McGeown, under her wing, and does what she can to help his family. A “mixed marriage”, the McGeowns are harassed in their Protestant council estate. When the father is beaten so badly that he’s left for dead, Cushla worries about the desire for vengeance churning in Davy’s older brother Tommy. When Cushla’s private and professional lives collide in the novel’s climax, the tragedy is no less heart-wrenching for having been written on the wall.

One of the standout stories in Kennedy’s debut short story collection, The End of the World is a Cul-de-Sac (2021), also features the Troubles. Shortlisted for the 2019 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, “In Silhouette” depicts a woman haunted by her brother’s involvement with one of the “disappeared” — Irish Catholics believed to have been abducted and killed by Republicans.

If the pervading tenor of Kennedy’s stories is one of resignation, Trespasses is all the more moving for allowing its protagonists to hope. Just as Cushla tries to broker peace in the classroom and her brother maintains a fragile harmony at the pub, Michael fights for justice within a partisan legal system.

Trespasses is historical fiction at its finest, allowing readers to experience past events via fictional characters living through them. The novel is “a work of fiction that is based on true events”, we learn in the author’s acknowledgments. Kennedy was born in Belfast, and her family ran a pub in Holywood, County Down. As Catholics (about a 10 per cent minority in Holywood at the time), “we were sort of exposed and noticeable,” she has said. After the bar was bombed twice in the 1970s, the family sold it and moved south to Kildare, in the Republic of Ireland.

Kennedy’s convincing characterisation is all the more impressive for her coming to writing later in life, having previously worked as a chef for nearly 30 years. She weaves together period detail (from army checkpoints to clothes and food) with the personal preoccupations of each character, deftly rendering Cushla’s alternating desire and self-reproach about seeing Michael. A poignant subplot shows Cushla’s attempts to manage her widowed mother’s alcoholism — a relationship reminiscent of the 2020 Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain, but with a voice all its own.

Literature often best processes collective trauma at one remove, if it manages to do so at all. “In the absence of a truth and reconciliation process, fiction offers a space to work out how we navigate the past in order to move forward,” the Northern Irish writer Sharon Dempsey wrote in The Irish Times.

While non-fiction accounts of the Troubles have been dominated by male voices, Trespasses takes a proud place on the shelf alongside other novels addressing the era from a woman’s perspective, including Anna Burns’ 2018 Booker-winning Milkman, Deirdre Madden’s One By One in the Darkness (1996) and Edna O’Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation (1994). Like the protagonist of Milkman, Cushla has to endure unwanted male attention, with her brother turning a blind eye to the soldiers groping her at the bar.

The ominous ambience of sectarian violence in Trespasses is tempered by flashes of Kennedy’s wry wit. The story is bookended with a flash-forward to 2015, which offers some breathing space, if not healing. Cushla, now a grandmother, is visiting a commemorative sculpture, where she happens to bump into Davy. The tour guide tells the group that the sculptor depicted her murdered friend as Everyman, but Cushla thinks otherwise. “The detail is intimate, accurate even, almost as if the cast had been moulded over his body.” It’s an apt metaphor for the work of this affecting novel — due to be published in the US in November — in which the political is made acutely personal.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy, Bloomsbury £14.99, 320 pages

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