Astral Wicks: Dan Magennis's Book Review of N.R. Marchands, 'The Troubles'

Firstly, I must disassociate the educated and cultured postgraduate research student Daniel Magennis from the rather childish blog post title above. I alone shoulder the blame for that milquetoastish attempt at pun-manship.

For those of you that don't get the gag, it's a play on 'Astral Weeks' by Belfast's own Van Morrison. 'Wick', in the Belfast vernacular has been defined as 'stupid, useless' by local website 'In Your Pocket; in an article titled 'How till spake Norn Iron (A guide to local phrases).

Without further ado, here's Daniel's considered thoughts on the paperback version of the book, supplied unsolicited by post to Belfast Books by Olympia Publishers on behalf of Ontarian Ms Marchand.

For anyone who wishes to read Ms Marchand's work, the title is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle and free to read on kindleunlimited. Or, heaven forbid that you buy something from a local independent shop instead of Amazon, you can buy copies of what may become a cult classic from us.

"The Troubles by N.R. Marchand, a review.

The Troubles novel is a treacherous thing. For many authors – especially those unfamiliar with Northern Ireland’s complex social, political, and historical terrain – it is difficult to navigate, and chances are that nobody will thank you for doing it. Regrettably, this is the case with N.R. Marchand’s The Troubles (Olympia Publishers, 2018).

Throughout much of the Troubles, Irish and Northern Irish authors simply avoided the topic altogether. For both local writers and readers, suffering and loss were often too near. It was left mostly to British and American thriller writers to explore the conflict. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these thrillers are often laughable for the Northern Irish reader. Sometimes referred to as Troubles trash, some academics even suggest that the deluge of inaccurate representations may be, in part, responsible for the closemindedness that maintains sectarian division,[1] and hinders the peace process. Whatever their repercussions, these thrillers spoke about the trauma of violence too glibly and didactically for Northern Irish readers. There were no simple, believable solutions and, in any case, what more could they learn about a conflict that coloured their everyday lives for thirty years? A market flooded with these crass and reductive representations deterred authors from adding their own opinions to the literary “freakshow” that was the Troubles novel.[2] There are, of course, notable exceptions to this[3] and, since the conflict’s end (although it seems a little optimistic to say “resolution”), a vibrant and talented cohort of authors has stepped up to address Northern Ireland’s chequered history and problematic present.[4]

As a student of French literature on the Troubles, I am used to reading books that approach the topic from unusual angles. These range from aristocratic, Austrian mercenaries foiling Soviet plans to destabilize the West through cynical manipulation of the IRA (as in Gérard de Villiers’ 1974 novel Furie à Belfast [Fury in Belfast]), to Marxist freedom fighters kidnapping the Queen of England in the 1981 Luis contre la reine d'Angleterre [Luis versus the Queen of England] by Roger Mauge, to an entire series of erotic novels set in the tumultuous years of the 18th century (Troubles of an earlier sort) as in the fifteen Mairon d’Irlande [Marion of Ireland] written between 1974 and 1976 by the mysterious-sounding Ugo Solenza. Often, engagement with the real issues of the Troubles are in the background and French concerns take centre stage. Usually it helps to ask the question, who is this novel for?

Asking this question of N.R Marchand’s The Troubles is an oddly frustrating exercise. And one for which I have no clear answer. Stilted and unrealistic dialogue means it provides little pleasure for local (Northern Irish) readers, who will see or hear little of themselves in this novel. Characters speak in a ponderous pastiche of a Northern brogue. Irrespective of political alignment, they seem to have an all-island approach to vocabulary, using a wide but unconvincing range of Irish-isms. From this it wavers to a misplaced, faux-archaic dialect. We read characters saying such improbable things as “... I was just reminded of last week when I, by chance, was privy to the attack on Malvern Street’ and “I second guess our expeditious mode of transportation.”

The narrative too is at times an uneasy assemblage of words that don’t quite fit together (such as “The boys are aborting volume in their pathetic screams” and “...the visitation from my imagination’s own mirage is now beyond my variable control and luck or fate has taken its course”). This sort of thing is, of course, a matter of taste, but I could not warm to prose that felt as overblown as it was ineffective. Littered with strange metaphors (“her eyes are glowing black pits of tar in the dimming light”, “with the agility of a flock of sheep”) and frequent tautologies (“fearful trepidation”, “gregarious conversation”, “impotently useless”), as well as inconsistencies of punctuation, grammar, and even word choice (“veracious” is, several times, used in place of “voracious”), this book was not an easy read.

While I do think it in poor taste to fact-check a work of fiction, and inaccurate incidental details can be attributed to creative license, there are some errors in this book that call attention to themselves because of the sheer ease with which they could have been avoided. Although the bulk of the story is set between October and December 1971, we read of the Aldershot bombing, a Republican reprisal for the British Army’s actions during Bloody Sunday, both of which took place in 1972. On a journey to Dublin, characters benefit from modern infrastructure (the M1 and Mary McAleese Boyne Valley River bridge, both constructed after the events of The Troubles) and yet still appear to spend an entire night travelling. Time, in general, is an inconstant in The Troubles. The inclusion in the novel of a young, pagan Bobby Sands and a mafioso-like Gerry Adams (who, according to The Troubles, despite statements to the contrary, it seems was in the IRA) in the narrative is similarly unconvincing, perhaps even libellous.

The novel also takes pains to emphasize, if not fetishize, Ireland’s pre-Christian past. For example, when passing through Newry, a protagonist muses, “I care for my sodden, lush, green land and this town is a perfect representation of my enchantment with it with its creaking ancient dwellings, some having been retrofitted from 500 BC. The coupling from our ‘modern’ life to our Celtic heritage is not lost on me.” It is through such improbable remarks (what might a retrofitted, Iron Age roundhouse look like?) that we are still left wondering, who is The Troubles for? Unidentifiable characters, dialogue, milieu, improbable situations and inaccurate details show a carelessness that would irk the Northern Irish reader. Foreign readers eager for information on the Troubles should also look elsewhere. The novel clearly wishes to make a point; that a more humanistic approach – here through neo-paganism – may provide an alternative to the rigidly dogmatic mainstream religions. While there is an argument here, the novel does not truly achieve even this. Perhaps the convinced neo-pagan may find a sort of vindication in this novel? It is difficult to say. The reader can, and should, however, balk at the suggestion that the Troubles was ever a purely religiously motivated conflict. To do so elides the genuine grievances felt by both sides of the divide, both before, during and since its end.

Placing emphasis on Ireland’s past, its atavism, its Celtic heritage and language are all ways of exoticizing it as a subject matter. The Ireland of Newgrange, faeries and shillelaghs, when coupled with the Ireland of car bombs, urban poverty and sectarianism, is as alluring to the foreign reader as it is tiresome to the local. The greatest tragedy of the Troubles is the generations lost to it, both in terms of its victims and those sucked into its normalisation of the abnormal – inbred distrust of neighbours, intolerance and bigotry. Literature, and art in general, presents an opportunity to explore what we have done and what has been done to us and in this it is invaluable. In this, in its paper-thin exploration of the issues that dog this island, The Troubles fails also.

 

[1] Patrick Magee, Gangsters or Guerrillas?: Representations of Irish Republicans in ‘Troubles Fiction’ (Belfast: Beyond The Pale, 2001), 2.

[2] Elizabeth Bouché, ‘No Big Thrill’, Fortnight, no. 312 (1992): 46.

[3] See the essay Prose Literature of the Troubles by Patricia Craig at the Troubles Archive website, which is maintained by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, for examples of notable works on the Troubles (http://www.troublesarchive.com/essays).

[4] A comprehensive list of Troubles literature assembled by Dr Bill Rolston of the University of Ulster can be found on the fascinating, and tragic, CAIN Web Service (http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/bibdbs/alphnovel.htm). See also the Troubles Archive website, maintained by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, for reviews and essay on art and literature inspired by the Troubles.

 

17 May, 2018 by John Junk

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