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.