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).