Trespasses by Louise Kennedy — crossing dangerous boundaries
It seems fitting to write a review of Trespasses during the week of events marking the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the landmark peace accord that ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. . Louise Kennedy’s debut novel is set in a Belfast suburb during the turbulent times before the accord, a period known as The Troubles.
She evokes the tinderbox atmosphere of a community whose residents have become accustomed — almost inured — to army checkpoints, armed patrols and alerts. When a Catholic wedding party is interrupted by squaddies who swagger around but leave without questioning anyone, it’s only the bride who seems outraged at the intrusion. The other guests just shrug and return to their drinks.
Trespasses reflects these times through the experiences of Cushla Lavery, a primary school teacher in a suburb of Belfast. Every school day begins, at the headmaster’s direction, with reports from her class about what they’ve heard on the news. Instead of inconsequential snippets about pop groups and football matches, the children of St Dallan’s school offer headlines about car bombings, shootings, internments and beatings.
Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a 7-year-old child now.
Cushla’s home life is just as stressful. Her widowed mother has become increasingly erratic, her behaviour fuelled by an alcohol intake so high she sometimes passes out. When she’s not cleaning up after her mother, Cushla gives a hand behind the bar of her brother’s pub, frequently coming in for unwarranted attention from chippy, drunken British soldiers.
The news started the way it always did with a montage of short scenes. A riot. A boy of six or seven climbing up the side of a Saracen personnel carrier to poke a stone into one of the slits from which the soldiers pointed their guns. A march on Stormont, thousands moving up the long avenue to the Parliament building. They had added a new one. A single parked car on an empty street. It looked like a photograph until the car bulged and exploded into a great ball of fire and its doors somersaulted away from it, glass from the surrounding buildings falling like hail on the tarmac.
It’s in the pub that Cushla meets Michael Agnew, a handsome, sophisticated and charismatic barrister. The affair on which they embark must be kept secret for Michael is not only married, he’s Protestant and has taken on political cases on behalf of known Republicans. In the times in which they live and in the eyes of friends, neighbours and associates their religious affiliations put them on diametrically opposing sides.
In a second plot strand we find another situation in which Cushla “trespasses” into dangerous, forbidden territory.
This concerns one of the brightest pupils in her class, seven-year-old Davy McGeown who comes from a mixed home (one parent Catholic, the other Protestant). His family are subjected to intimidation from loyalists who want them gone from their patch. When Davy’s father is brutally attacked, Cushla steps in to try and help the McGeowns but her well-intentioned actions put her own safety at risk.
Louise Kennedy takes a fairly traditional story idea as the basis for Trespasses — love across a social divide — but gives it added weight by placing it into the context of a country in turmoil. In other places and at other times, Cushla’s acts of kindness towards another family would have passed largely without comment. Trespasses shows us a world in which normal life has been distorted, a world in which simple actions have wide-ranging repercussions. A world in which ordinary people, like Cushla are forced to make a choice: to toe the line and accept the consequent limitations on happiness and fulfilment OR to cross the boundaries in pursuit of joy and personal satisfaction.
Trespasses is often intense but there are touches of humour that are often wry reflections on the way things are in Belfast. Kennedy brings the smells and sounds of places and the physical appearance of individuals to life beautifully. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Cushla’s mother Gina — a woman whose ‘thinness of limb” contrasts with the boozy bloat of her face’. while the “hot scalliony hair of his armpit’ that Cushla notices after a night with Michael, seemed particularly evocative.
The novel is sombre — how could it be otherwise when so many chapters begin with a litany of news headlines — and builds to a shocking and chilling finale. It’s a strong debut, one that keeps you thinking long after the final page.
24 thoughts on “Trespasses by Louise Kennedy — crossing dangerous boundaries”
I attended a library book sale this weekend and purchased Jacqueline Kennedy’s book on Favorite poems by her favorite poets; so here we have a famous person’s book on the poet/poems that she cherishes; it is interesting to receive this email and to have the name Kennedy pops up; I continue to insist on these weird coincidences that bothers me somehow and perhaps some wonders why? Kennedy is a common name like all the names that follow me around town and beyond. I only know of ‘trespass’ in that: Thou shall not trespass or covet thy neighbor and so on…; Sorry for not making sense ever.
Kennedy is indeed one of the most common of Irish surnames so it’s not surprising to find it in many places around the world
Excellent review, Karen. I wrote my own last week but thought the storyline cliched & while I appreciated the war zone setting, I think I’ve just read better books about the Troubles. I liked the book; I didn’t love it. But understand I’m in the minority about this one.
I put this one on my wishlist after your review…
#TentativeThoughts: I wonder if it resonates differently in Ireland, as in, for people who live there, it’s a reminder of what they have to lose if they don’t nurture the peace. That remains an important project for them and this novel shows younger people what it was like, perhaps in a more vivid way than what they learn in their history lessons.
Don’t look at the reviews on Amazon, which are full of bigotry.
I never look at reviews on Amazon because they can’t be filtered. And on Goodreads, I only look at the reviews of the friends I’ve followed for a while and trusted.
I don’t usually do so either but I wanted to check if I was the only one who was disappointed by the book so did a sense check at Amazon and realised I wasn’t the only one except the people writing bad reviews were saying horrible bigoted things, complaining that the novel was too Catholic etc.
Old hatreds… it’s too stupid…
So many Goodreads reviews are either just re-hashes of the plot or not much more than “I loved it”
Yes, but (unlike Amazon) they are sorted by reviews from friends and people you follow, and then the rest. So if one of your friends has read the book, you’re in luck. If not — and I don’t often want to pursue it if not, only if I tempted to buy a book and need to know more about it — then you ignore the 5- and 1-star reviews and check out the others. You also click on the reviewer’s name to see what kind of books they read, so that you can see that they’ve given James Joyce’s Ulysses one star and called it pretentious because all they’ve ever read is Maeve Binchy!
You’re a lot more systematic than I am. It’s a good idea though to go for the middle ranking reviews – more honest I would think
I’ve come across too many reviews on Amazon that are more about someone’s own beliefs and opinions on an issue rather than reactions to how the author handled the topic
Good question Lisa. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some reactions were different in Ireland – particularly among those readers who lived through the Troubles. I had a look at what Cathy (746books.com) had to say. She didn’t do a full review but did list it as one of her favourite books of the year
That’s a pretty good endorsement!
I can see how the affair with an older, married man from the other side of life could be considered cliched. I would have had the same reaction I think if it hadn’t been for the way she handled the other story line about Davy’s family.
Have you read Milk by Anna Burns? That’s a tremendous novel, also set during the Troubles though a good few years later
No, haven’t read the Anna Burns but have read plenty of others… the best one, hands down, in Louise Dean’s This Human Season.
I haven’t heard of that book but reading your review just now, certainly has me tempted. Long Kesh – now that’s a phrase I remember because it was in the news virtually every night for months. Thanks for the recommendation Kim
Yep, Cathy is a very reliable guide to the best of Irish fiction
I was very impressed with this one and wondered how much it reflected Kennedy’s own experiences of the Troubles given that it’s set in County Down where she grew up. I know you’re not a short story reader, Karen, but her collection is excellent, too.
I got this from the library only yesterday! So will hold off from reading your review for a day or two. Looking positive though, from your last paragraph.
I think you are in for a treat of a book Margaret
Her own experiences must have had an influence – I can’t imagine growing up in that kind of atmosphere and not being affected by it in some way
A hundred pages left of Tresspassing. Recognize a lot in your blog. An absolute fine debut.
I think by now you might have found that the book gets even better the closer it gets to the end