Trespasses by Louise Kennedy review – love among the Troubles | fiction

It’s the early 1970s, a time when the Carpenters are playing on the radio, the Milk Tray man epitomizes sophistication and, in the small town outside Belfast where teacher Cushla Lavery lives with her mother, bombings and beatings fill the headlines. At 24, she is able to recall a time before the Troubles, unlike her class of seven-year-olds at the Catholic primary school, whose vocabularies already include words such as gelignite and internment.

Theirs is a “mixed” town, but community relations teeter on a knife edge. At the family’s pub, run by Cushla’s brother, Eamonn, Paras pointedly grind their cigarette butts out in the carpet and the “ould lads” propping up the bar reminisce about the second world war, “because this war was unspeakable”.

In trespasses, her first novel, acclaimed short-story writer Louise Kennedy sets herself the challenge of encapsulating those unspeakable times and the powerlessness felt by ordinary people caught in the crossfire. She does so with skill, combining unflinching authenticity with narrative dexterity and a flair for detail, all wrapped up in a moving love story – two, really.

The first tracks Cushla’s affair with Michael Agnew, an older, married Protestant; the second of her her involvement in the home life of bullied pupil Davy McGeown, whose earnest goofiness steals her heart from her. Over the course of spring and summer, these two distinct plotlines converge to devastating effect.

Kennedy, a fiftysomething former chef, spent much of her childhood in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. She makes potent symbolic use of visual details, capturing, for instance, the mothers waiting outside school, their “touching umbrellas like a badly made quilt”, and her idiomatic dialogue gives her prose real verve.

Cushla’s mother, the gin-soaked Gina, has a particularly fine line in insults: Helen Mirren, seen on a TV chatshow, is a “dirty article”. Cushla herself, though self-conscious in the company of Michael’s accomplished friends, speaks with a perfect blend of tough humor and vulnerable sincerity. “The state of it,” she says, as they drive past the much-bombed Europa hotel.

Michael, meanwhile, becomes a handy mouthpiece for setting the Troubles in historical context. He also voices the sheer claustrophobia of living in a world where you’re defined first and foremost by religious affiliation. “It’s not about what you do here,” he reminds Cushla, “it’s about what you are.” Sure enough, circumstances will leave her acts of well-intentioned kindness to Davy’s family looking as twisted as barbed wire.

trespasses is framed by an encounter that takes place decades later. Cushla, now elderly and still surprised by the fact, stands contemplating a sculpture commemorating a friend of the artist, murdered in the Troubles, when a hand reaches out to touch her arm. Though restitution is all but impossible, together the sculpture and the chance meeting provide a sense of resolution. It’s a scene as deftly calibrated as the drama that precedes it.

trespasses by Louise Kennedy is published by Bloomsbury Circus (£14.99). To support the Guardian and observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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