Friday, March 24, 2023

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy #ReadingIreland2023

Title: Trespasses
Author: Louise Kennedy
Publication: Riverhead, hardcover, 2022
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Northern Ireland, 1975
Description: Cushla is a primary school teacher at St. Dallan’s near Belfast, who serves in her family’s pub when her brother Eamonn needs help with the uneasy mixture of Catholics and Protestant customers. Their father is dead but Cushla lives with their mother, who is an alcoholic. When Michael Agnew, a married Protestant barrister twice her age, appears at the bar, there is instant attraction between them: he appears to be a serial philanderer while Cushla may be looking for a father figure or simply a distraction from her dreary life. At school, she is trying to help forlorn Davy McGeown, the class misfit, ridiculed because he smells. Davy lives on a council estate with parents and siblings but when his father is viciously beaten up, the family’s fortunes begin a dramatic descent. Cushla’s efforts to help the McGeowns dramatically backfire, when her two worlds collide, precipitating a crisis that cannot be undone

My Impression: What Kennedy does well is to transport the reader into a completely different and dangerous world. Where Cushla and a fellow teacher cannot drive to a party without being threatened by soldiers at an army checkpoint and a child is tormented by a priest at school because his mother is a Protestant. A visit to Dublin is a revelation to Cushla because there is no security or danger; just carefree people walking up and down Grafton Street. The book is primarily about Catholic Cushla’s relationship with a married Protestant, Michael Agnew, a barrister who has roused ire by representing Catholics in court. I suppose it is his sophistication that appeals to her, as well as the fact that a secret obsession is a distraction from the bleak world of oppressors and oppressed. Still, I found her sudden yearning for him hard to understand: her mother makes it clear he is no longer very handsome, the sex is bad, his friends laugh at her, and the relationship is dangerous. When she meets his beautiful wife and has a pang of conscience, he becomes snide:
Do you really want to have this conversation? he said, slamming his glass on the table.

Yeah. I do. She could feel her throat closing.

Are you sure? Because I would counter that this attack of conscience has been triggered by the realization that you are not the only woman I’ve been with outside of my marriage, rather than any concern for my wife’s dignity.
He could be right but what a jerk! And somehow I find it amusing that a writer too pretentious to use quotation marks cannot do without the ordinary but essential question mark.
Cushla senses the relationship is going to end badly but she cannot imagine how badly or that she is the unwitting instrument of the eventual disaster. She is touched by Davy, a boy in her class, and pities his family’s isolation and bad luck but her efforts to help them put her family and everyone connected with her in danger. Suddenly, she is the one who is alone and Kennedy makes the reader feel her misery and fear. While it was hard to like Cushla or anyone but poor little Davy, they are just two of the vividly depicted characters that make this book convincing, albeit dark and depressing. However, I do not think I would recommend it to anyone who prefers her reading to be somewhat escapist.
Source: Library. I had heard interesting things about this book and chose it for Reading Ireland Month 2023 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. It is also my sixth book for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Marg at the Intrepid Reader.


TracyK said...

I am happier with feel good reading at the moment, but I find the subject of the this book, the setting during the Troubles, very interesting, if disturbing. I would be bothered about the lack of quotation marks though. Like you said, pretentious. I will wait a while and think about it.

CLM said...

Exactly, Tracy! It is interesting but very painful to read. Also, I would not have been able to tell what the year was except that the characters very specifically mention an athlete winning a medal in the Olympics three years earlier. Otherwise, the time frame of the "Troubles" seems quite vague. I didn't mention that it starts in the present and the whole story is a flashback.