Novel of the Year 2022

TRESPASSES. By Louise Kennedy. Bloomsbury. 311 pp. €19.99

Review by Frank O’Shea

This is the book that won the 2022 Irish Book of the Year and it is easy to imagine how the judges came to that decision. It is different in a number of ways, not least the modern style of omitting quotation marks and the understated way in which the author introduces major events. At the very end, for example, we learn that one of the characters has died only through a throwaway phrase, ‘She taped Tommy’s funeral.’

The book is a reminder of what Ireland was like in the 1970s. Those who lived there at that time, whether in Dublin or in the lawless north, will be reminded of the daily litany of atrocities carried out by one side or the other, under the fictitious monitoring of the RUC.

The central character is a 24-year-old woman named Cushla, the name identifying her side of things. She teaches a class of seven-year-olds in a school in the suburbs of Belfast. She starts her first class each morning by asking the pupils for the news items of the day and is given a list of killings and maimings, bombs and gelignite, fires and destruction carried out by one side or the other in the previous twenty-four hours.

The boy in the front desk is Davy who is picked on by the class, because they say that he smells. Cushla has a soft spot for him and gives him a lift home to his house in a mixed estate, with the words TAIGS OUT dribbling down the walls. Later his father is badly battered and has to spend months in hospital; meanwhile the oldest boy in the family, Tommy, leaves school with only a short time to his A levels and not surprisingly gets into sectarian company.

Cushla sometimes helps out in the pub owned by her brother Eamonn; it is in a mixed area and is sometimes patronised by soldiers from the nearby barracks. Among the regulars is a man named Michael, a barrister with a strong support for civil rights and a fondness for whiskey. The early part of the book describes the beginning and quick progress of an affair between him and Cushla. He is more than 30 years older than she is, but seems to have serious sexual needs and unflagging ability in that area of life.

As the story progresses, Davy’s family are burnt out of their mixed area and have to be moved to a Republican estate. This review will not reveal the tragedy that takes up much of the action in the second half of the story, but it is the kind of thing that in those awful years would have been regarded as almost common.

The book starts and ends with two short chapters, each set in 2015; they make the point about the awfulness of the 1970s almost as forcefully as the text itself.

There are small thing about the way the book is set out that may annoy many readers. The abundance of characters is one example. ‘Along the bar, Minty, Leslie and Fidel were draping their arms around each other, posing for Eamonn. Jimmy was a little away from them.’ It is some time since we met those characters and they have little input in the story, but the reader will want to try to remember.

Another annoyance is the absence of quotation marks and the confusion it may cause. I give just one example. ‘Cushla listened to her lie for her, in her telephone voice; gastric flu, she was saying, sure you couldn’t have her going near the place with a dose like that. She forced down the now tepid tea …’ The reader may be confused about who is who in this.

These are of course, minor criticisms of a book that will remain in the mind, less for the actions it describes as for its reminder of what was involved in living in Belfast and surrounds almost fifty years ago. The author is a native of Belfast, now living in Sligo.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.