Rating: 4 stars
Lisa McInerney won the Bailey’s Prize last year with this, her debut novel. I liked the reviews I read on other bookish blogs, so it went high up on my to read list.
It had a slow start. It felt a little so-so, a little studied at first. I didn’t much care for Ryan and his girlfriend Karine, or Jimmy and his mum Maureen, or Ryan’s dad Tony, when they were first introduced.
Georgie, though, was another matter. So much tragedy told so simply, without hyperbole. Her need for something different from the life her parents lead, and where that takes her. The matter of factness about surrendering her virginity in a grotty flat and the subsequent drift into prostitution hollowed me out. Georgie could be anyone. Women trapped in prostitution come from families somewhere, and sometimes from averagely decent families, too.
The others grew on me, gradually, as their stories intertwined. Those intertwined lives aren’t happy. They’re not entirely miserable, either. There are seams of happiness, glimmers of the gold of love and acceptance by people whose opinion matters. But mostly their lives are grim and desperate in their inevitable trajectories. They make bad choices, but they are human in the way they do it. It’s not possible to hate them. Nobody is an out and out villain. Everybody has a reason for being the way they are. Everyone has a reflex that jerks them to the decisions they make.
The book has a similar feel to David Mitchell’s small town novel Black Swan Green. Average lives in average towns where remarkable things happen without being remarked on and people come of age in violent ways. The Glorious Heresies is about drugs and sex and life and death and anger and frustration. It’s also about music.
The story builds from its average beginning, and so does the sadness and frustration at so much unfulfilled potential. This is modern tragedy. This is the reality behind the pantomime you see on Jeremy Kyle. It’s horror that you don’t want to see but can’t look away from because it’s so human. The writing fizzes and crackles with anger and despair, with frustration at the pain that love and not being loved well enough creates. McInerney reaches into your guts, twists and keeps on twisting.
There’s disdain for the Catholic church and its division of women into mammies, bitches, wives, girlfriends and whores. There’s disdain for the Irish way of treating women who become pregnant out of wedlock (and there’s an interesting word, with its echo of possession, its securing of another). There’s a path shown between the hiding of illegitimacy, the removal of children from mothers, the fall into criminal lives because an adherence to the notion of sin makes criminals out of all who fail the standard. The judgement of others by impossible standards has a lot to answer for. Catholic or not, we all do it. We all have our bubbles and echo chambers, judging and condemning those who aren’t like us. McInerney takes characters who, in a less subtle author’s hands, would be caricatures, people to hate or love, and she shows that we are all the same. Our immediate troubles, anxieties and joys might be different on the surface, but we are all trying to make sense of our lives, telling ourselves we’re the ones who have it right, that we’re okay.
When I started the book, I was almost daring it to disappoint, but it’s a worthy winner of the 2016 Bailey’s Prize. I’m looking forward to Lisa McInerney’s next one.