Kevin Curran.

Posted by Sue Leonard on Thursday 7th April 2016

This being 1916, it’s not surprising that the year has already seen a plethora of books set around the rising, but Citizens is one with a difference. Curran’s second novel is set mainly in the depths of our recent recession, but explores the aims of the rising through a photographer who, whilst fighting with the rebels, was also recording events for posterity.

In 2011, Neil is 26. He’s lost his job; he’s frustrated with his housemates, and his plans to emigrate to Canada with his girlfriend, Kathy, have been put on hold. His beloved grandfather has died, promising him something special, and he’s hanging around looking after his grieving grandmother.

Or trying to. But life is only real for Neil when he’s high at parties; it’s what he lives for; so he leaves his gran overnight, and, slinking in, hungover, pretends he has been there all along. When she tells him his inheritance comes in the forms of diaries; written in 1916 by his great grandfather, who was in the middle of the action, he is disappointed.

Each time he visits his gran, they read a chapter together.  And these diaries, of Harry Casey – F Company, 2nd Battalion make for engrossing reading. Determined to keep filming, Harry’s actions cause tension; and not just from his superiors who want him to concentrate on the fight. His former best friend from GAA days, Davy, whose ferocity has been caught on camera, will do anything to stop the filming, and destroy the reels of film.

When Neil realises that the reels of Pathé film, believed destroyed are actually at a hidden location he becomes excited; though not for the reasons his grandmother would like.

‘Neil wants to capitalise on history, not understand it.’

The diaries show the fervour of the rebels. Whilst some, like Davy, were set on gaining power, Harry fought for a better Ireland for his successors; a place where nobody would have to leave, and this tension, played out between Neil and his gran is at the heart of the novel.

Whilst Neil waits to hear the full story in the diaries, his nerdy contact, Enda, is slowly, but surely, treating and processing the reels. And Kathy, homesick in Vancouver, is becoming both impatient, and a little elusive. But when Neil begins to properly engage with his grandfather’s story, she dismisses his sentiment.

‘You have control over the past in a way you never had over the future,’ she says, urging him to gain from the feels, and forget them.’

Dublin, past and present is beautifully described. When Enda and Neil travel the Luas Red Line, complete with addicts, urinating drunks and negligent mothers, Neil muses that the Red Line is Dublin’s shame, compared to the Sky Train which is Vancouver’s pride.

All these tensions are tied around a thriller like plot, making this a finely paced look into the effect of Ireland’s history on the present. The novel is laced with humour. Whilst there is no doubting that Neil’s heart is in the right place; he loved his gran, and wants the best for her, the same cannot be said of his avaricious uncles who gather like vultures, in humorous scenes, reminiscent of Featherstone’s relatives in Middlemarch.

But it’s the relationships that makes this novel shine; Neil’s interactions with his gran, his uncles, and with Enda are wonderfully realised. But the emotions between him and Kathy – the love, the hurts, the rows and the tenderness show Curran’s writing at its very best.

Citizens by Kevin Curran; Liberties Press: € 13.99.

Published in The Irish Examiner, 2nd April

© Sue Leonard. 2016

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