The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

glorious-heresies2The Glorious Heresies is a bold, brash debut novel that won Lisa McInerney numerous accolades including the Bailey’s Prize and the Desmond Elliot prize in 2016.

McInerney’s edgy style will not be to everyone’s liking and her portrayal of Cork’s seedy underworld is unlikely to do much for the city’s tourist trade. Forget any images of pastoral landscape and Guiness-fuelled booze ups to the sound of a few jolly fiddlers. The world of The Glorious Heresies is a crowded vista of brothels and grim housing estates of schoolboy drug dealers and malicious thugs.

Tony Cusack’s terrace was only one of dozens flung out in a lattice of reluctant socialism. There was always some brat lighting bonfires on the green, or a lout with a belly out to next Friday being drunkenly ejected from home (with a measure of screaming fishwife fucked in for good luck), or squad cars or teenage squeals or gibbering dogs.

The novel begins with an accidental murder in a block of flats used as a temporary residence for Maureen Phelan, the mother of one of the city’s leading gangland bosses. When she hits an intruder over the head with a Holy Stone, Maureen sets in motion a chain of events that entangle her son and three other members of the city’s underclass.

To describe the plot further would be to do an injustice to McInderney’s novel because the power of The Glorious Heresies really stems from the brilliantly delineated misfits that make up her cast.  The guy drafted in to dispose of the body is Tony, a drunken wastrel and father of six, whose alcoholism and obsession with his unhinged next-door neighbour threatens to ruin him and his family.  Georgie, the murdered man’s girlfriend, is a wildchild who has run away from her village home because “if she didn’t get up and march out, she’d grow roots down through the thin carpet, down through the foundations, down into the soil, the dirt, the rock and trap herself there until her brain turned to jelly.”  Her new life in Cork is one of drugs and prostitution.

Feeding her habit is Tony’s fifeteen year old son, Ryan. He’s desperate not to turn out like his father who is rather too free with his fists when he’s in his cups. He’s an intelligent boy though disruptive in school, one who hides his talent for playing the piano and puts on a show of bravado. But deep down he mourns the mother who died four years earlier and whose presence is still felt in the family home:

It was a three-bedroom terrace so cavernous without his mother he could barely stand it. It echoed shit he didnt want to think about in chasms that shouldnt have been there.

As the novel opens, Ryan is on the fringe of manhood, about to leave behind his “pile of mangled, skinny limbs” and emerge with “squared shulders and jaws, and strong arms.” His metamorphosis is achieved with the aid of Karine D’Arcy, “”whip-smart and as beautiful as morning”, the most desirable girl in his school. She was now in his bedroom, helping him lose his virginity.  Their relationship is the only stability Ryan can count on as his life goes into spin: a predatory next door neighbour seduces him; his father is implicated in the disposal of the corpse and Ryan’s drug dealing gets him sent down for nine months in a young offenders’ institution.

Though Ryan is the central character, it’s the gangster’s mother Maureen, a woman “crazier than a dustbin fox”, I warmed to the most. After 40 years of exile in London she’s returned to Cork to discover the illegitimate son she had to give up for adoption, has become a much-feared thug, drug baron and sex-industry entrepreneur.  She’s determined to atone for the death, despite her son’s protestations that she’s already caused enough trouble. But when she goes to church to confess her crime, her encounter with a priest stirs up memories of the way the Catholic Church treated unmarried mothers like herself.  She ends up accusing the priest of hypocrisy:

The most natural thing in the world is giving birth; you built your whole religion around it. And yet you poured pitch on girls like me and sold us into slavery and took our humanity from us.”scarred by the treatment yet still vividly scarred by having spent her years in fear of the Holy Trinity: “the priests, the nuns and the neighbours”.

The switching narrative viewpoints take us deep into the minds and hearts of these people and make us cry and despair alongside them, and, at times, laugh.  For though their prospects are bleak and the city is in a post economic-boom tailspin, the sheer muddle of their lives produces some dark humour.

It’s an exuberant debut, unflinching in exposing the dark underbelly of  a city  “spread out in soft mounds and hollows, like a duvet dropped into a well” and biting in its denouncement of the Catholic church as well as a missionary cult that seems to think the answer to the city’s drug problem is to hand out pamphlet. This is a novel that asks serious questions about salvation, guilt and the effects of the past on the present.


The Book: The Glorious Heresies was published by John Murray in 2015.  It won The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016 and the Desmond Elliot Prize for 2016. It was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prie 2016. I read the e-version.

The Author: Lisa McInerney is from Galway and is the author of an award-winning blog ‘Arse End of Ireland’ (no longer active or available). The Irish Times has called her ‘arguably the most talented writer at work in Ireland today’. Her latest novel The Blood Miracles is published in April 2017 – it features Ryan Cusak (from The Glorious Heresies).

Why I read this book: Although I often ignore books that attract huge levels of attentionl this one appealed to me. I read it for ReadingIreland2017 hosted by 746books and  The Fluff is Raging.



About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on April 7, 2017, in Book Reviews, Irish authors, Reading Ireland and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. . It’s a risk to feature the same character though I’m thinking

  2. This wold not be a typical book choice for me but you have made a fair job of convincing me I might like it. I think “exuberant” was the clincher 🙂

    • It took me a few chapters to get into it – the early chapters skip from character to character so I wasnt clear how they fitted together but the style was so fresh I wanted to keep going

  3. This is the second review I’ve read of this which makes it sound extremely good (I probably read 746’s and forgot to comment at hers). I’m quite tempted. I think I’ll take a look and see if I can fit it in some time, particularly since I have a family connection to Cork (not that I know the city well, but I have at least been there).

    Shame her latest isn’t as strong. Perhaps it’s second album syndrome (you have years to develop the first, then once it’s a success only a few months before people clamour for the second).

  4. This is very near the top of my TBR (meaning, the next to be started when another of the group is finished) and I’m curious about the characters, now that you’ve deliberately not shared some of that. Intrigued!

  5. Lovely to read your inspiration for reading the book as well!

    • I started to take a note of that because often I’d look a book in my collection and wonder how on earth I ended up with it – what had made me buy/acquire it

  6. I’ve had this one in my TBR stack since last year and I’m waiting for the right moment – I think it will probably be the ideal book to break my next reading slump.

  7. I adored this book and had the privilege of receiving the next in the series. Lisa is a fantastic new voice! I met her last night and she incredibly humble. I would recommend you read the next one The Blood Miracles when it’s out on 20 April. I reviewed it on my blog here:

  8. I absolutely adored this, and I think your review nails its tone—very glad you enjoyed it too.

  9. Great review. I read the book last year and loved the read. Lisa builds up the atmosphere so well in the book. By the premise, I did not think I would enjoy the book. Once I started reading it I realised how wrong I was

  10. You capture the essence of the book exactly for me – and like you the mother was the character I was most drawn to. I agree it’s a bit marmite in style – but it worked for me brilliantly.

    • I appreciated the nuances of Ryan’s character too but thought there was more depth to the mother. Will you read her latest one Col?

      • I bought the new novel a few weeks back but not yet got to the top of my pile! But have heard lots of good things about it so expecting to enjoy it.

  11. Great review of a great book. 🙂

  12. I’ve been a little wary of the hype with this one but you’ve made it sound quite tempting.

  13. Sounds really interesting. I have heard a lot of good things about The Glorious Heresies. I’ve realized recently that I purposefully avoid books with unpleasant subject matters, so I’m hoping to fix that this year.

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