Debut Roundup. March/April 2017

Posted by Sue Leonard on Monday 3rd April 2017

Montpelier Parade. Karl Geary. Harvill Secker

Teenager Sonny’s life seems stymied. He has no friends, unless you count the downtrodden Sharon; he’s in trouble at school where he’s a charity case, and his part-time job at the butcher’s shop does little to excite him.

There’s war in his house. His elder brothers, allying with their mother don’t talk to their father. He is fond of his dad, and helps out in his building business, but life is going nowhere.

Then one day, working with his father, he meets Vera. The solitary Englishwoman, living alone in the large, slightly dilapidated house in Montpelier Parade captures Sonny’s imagination. She’s beautiful and elusive, and Sonny is determined to get to know her better. Gradually, he inveigles himself into her life. But who exactly is Vera, and what is she hiding from the boy?

This mesmerising tale of an unlikely love affair enraptured me from the start. It’s shocking yet tender, and the author leaks information slowly, gradually revealing the heart of the story. Sonny is an unforgettable character. Extraordinarily fearless, he’s always in trouble, a victim of class prejudice, but he never dissolves into self-pity. And the plot, bringing more than one surprise, is perfectly judged.

In the past five years I’ve read some exceptional debuts; literary; experimental; innovative and clever, but none has engaged me as much as this one. It’s a piece of perfection.

Ferenji and Other Stories. Helena Mulkerns. Doire Press: €12.95

We all have an image of a war torn country; we’re familiar with the ravaged landscape and the devastation caused to the population, but few of us have a real idea of how it is to live in such places. And that’s why Helena Mulkern’s debut collection of short stories is such an important one.

A journalist, who hosts cultural events, Helena worked for the United Nations for some years – mostly as a press officer – in Guatemala, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Afghanistan, and, through these wonderful linked stories, she has used her experience to brilliant effect.

Living in discomfort with danger close by gives the workers a sense of camaraderie, and, as they move from mission to mission, they often encounter people they have worked with before.

In A child called Peace, Brid comforts parents of a child whose has lost her leg after treading on a landmine. She appears again in The 10,000 Mile Rule, when she comes to realise why she has been warned off mission romances; her lover will never leave his long-term partner.

The Biggest Liar sees Bren return to boomtime Ireland, jet-lagged and disorientated. His  sense of dislocation is accentuated by the sight of stacked supermarket shelves. We hear of his private life in Operation Cat Lift, and his office life in Image of the Day.

Some workers are out for glory. The photographer, Philippe, making the front page, doesn’t understand why his more subtle photos get chosen over the graphically violent images he strives for.

Each story gives us a glimpse into the horror, the beauty, and the strangeness of life in the field; but none so much as The Dogs. Emily and Tahmina sit in a jeep all day, in stifling heat, because the Muslim woman, who is only partially veiled, has been forbidden access to a UN presentation. The women’s bosses show no empathy, their attitude mirroring that of the regime they supposedly despise.

Mulkerns is a fabulous writer. All her stories – whether of carnage, or of a chance encounter on a beach, are stylish and tender, but most importantly of all, utterly authentic. She is a  writer to reckon with.

Rockadoon Shore. Rory Gleeson. John Murray.

When Cath and her five college friends arrive at her mother’s cottage in the west of Ireland, they’re determined to have a good time. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve known each other for a year and a half and consider themselves a tight bunch.

When they’ve consumed a lot of drink and drugs though, cracks begin to appear. And it’s clear that each of them hopes for something different from the break. Cath likes DanDan, but, pining for his ex, he’s behaving weirdly. Steph, the remote observer, doesn’t care about anyone, but that doesn’t stop her from making out with Merc.

Merc is already fighting demons. He can’t forgive JJ for showing him up in a fight. And when, after an encounter with Malachy, the gun touting elderly neighbour, he makes a run for it, nobody cares enough to stop him. As for Lucy, she clearly has a drink problem, and when DanDan makes a play for her, Cath sees red.

The story is told in chapters from each of the characters’ point of view – a device that works well. The author, son of the actor Brendan Gleeson, has a good grasp of his material, and there is no doubting his talent. He has empathy for his characters, and enables us to see them change and grow over the weekend, as they assess just what friendship means.

And if I found the self-absorbed characters a tad tedious, that is most likely because I am, clearly, not the target audience. 

The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir. Lesley Allen. Twenty7.

Most of us have been affected by bullying. If  we haven’t been a victim or a perpetrator, we’ve surely all witnessed it; and maybe carry guilt for being a passive bystander. And reading the first half of The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir is not a comfortable experience.

Biddy Weir was always different. With an absent mother and absent minded father that was inevitable. But for the first decade of her life she was content enough. Talented at art, she would walk the beach and sketch birds, and if she hadn’t friends at school, she was tolerated, if largely ignored.

Then Alison Harding enters her life. Beautiful, determined to be popular, the new girl sees Biddy as an easy target. Within a week she nicknames her classmate Bloody Weirdo, and from then on, the beleaguered Biddy believes absolutely, that she is, indeed weird.

At secondary school life gets worse still. And when a teacher, worrying about the misfit takes Biddy under her wing, it ends in worse than tears. And still the abuse, headed by the hateful Alison, continues and worsens.

Years later, when Biddy’s father dies, her GP worries about the friendless girl. Lacking confidence she barely speaks. What will become of her? He introduces her to Terri, a colourful if unconventional counsellor, and asks her to help. But is it too late for Biddy?

This is a beautifully written debut and is full of heart. The characters are well realised; even Alison. Yes, she’s a monster, but the author takes pains to show us why that might be so. There were times the events strained my belief. Would a young teacher partner a student at a school dance, however good her motives?

The book is aimed at the adult market, but sometimes it’s tone seemed more suitable for the Young Adult genre. Yet I enjoyed it, and felt enriched from spending time in Biddy’s world. As for the  redemptive ending – it was an utter joy!

Published in Books Ireland Magazine, in March, 2017.

© Sue Leonard. 2017

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