Louise Kennedy’s debut novel, Trespasses, has been picking up excellent reviews over the past few months, and rightly so. At heart, it’s a quietly devastating book, steeped in the tensions of a country divided by fierce sectarian loyalties. It’s also quite a difficult one to summarise in a couple of sentences – at once both an achingly tender story of an illicit love affair and a vivid exploration of the complex network of divisions that can emerge in highly-charged communities.
Set in a garrison town in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles, Trespasses revolves around Cushla Lavery, a twenty-four-year-old primary teacher at a local Catholic school. When Cushla isn’t at work, she helps out at the family’s pub – now managed by her moody brother, Eamonn, who lives with his wife, Marian, and their two cherubic girls. The pub – which is situated in a largely Protestant town – is frequented by a lively assortment of loudmouthed men, mostly Protestants and British soldiers from the nearby barracks.
Also keeping Cushla busy at home is her widowed, alcoholic mother, Gina, who regularly goes in for gin benders leaving Cushla to clean up the mess. Then there’s Davy McGeown, one of the seven-year-olds in Cushla’s class – a quietly enthusiastic boy, often picked on by classmates for his smelly clothes. Cushla knows that the McGeowns are desperately short of money, so she tries to help them out in her spare time while also lobbying the head for free school meals. Although Davy is being raised as a Catholic, the McGeowns are a mixed-religion family, with the children’s mother maintaining her Protestant status despite having married a Catholic. It’s clearly a source of great tension within the estate, leaving the McGeowns open to persecution by their Protestant neighbours who hang around the house in packs.
Into this mix comes Michael Agnew, a married Protestant barrister in his early fifties. With his strong views on civil rights, Michael is prepared to take on highly sensitive cases, such as the defence of three lads accused of murdering a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) – a case that others would rather avoid.
When Michael and Cushla meet in Eamonn’s bar, the attraction is instantaneous, progressing quickly into an affair. At first, their relationship is facilitated by Cushla’s agreement to give Irish lessons to Michael and his somewhat snobbish middle-class friends; but it swiftly merges into secret meetings at his private flat (away from the marital home). Kennedy excels at portraying the tenderness of this couple’s relationship, the rush of pleasure Cushla experiences when she and Michael are together.
He lit the tobacco and told her between puffs that he had liked how she stalked into the pub with a dirty big cross on her forehead. That he liked that she hadn’t looked away when she caught him watching her in the mirror. That he liked her in the Lyric, when she was standing by the ledge, trying to look nonchalant. That he especially liked that she cried when he mentioned her father. That he loved her. (p. 145)
The pain of separation is equally palpable: the physical yearning Cushla feels when Michael is out of reach; the uncertainly of waiting for a phone call out of the blue; the expectation that she will be prepared to drop everything if he manages to get away; the frustration of never having enough time together when they do meet; and perhaps most unsettling of all, the worry that he might just be stringing her along. Cushla knows that she isn’t Michael’s first lover, but she may not be the last either.
It seemed now he had been directing things. Showing her where he lived after one month, giving her his number after two, a key after three. Leaving her waiting for days on end then reappearing, reeling her back with a trip to Dublin, an afternoon in his flat. (p. 232)
Both parties are aware of the highly problematic nature of their relationship. The multitude of differences between them makes it fraught with danger, forcing Cushla to keep things hidden from Eamonn and Gina. Lord knows what would happen if they ever found out…
Nevertheless, Cushla gets drawn into trouble on several fronts. Both her affair with Michael and her entirely well-meaning attempts to support the McGeown family have unforeseen consequences, exacerbating sectarian divisions in a volatile environment. In short, there are serious ramifications for Cushla and those around her as she trespasses into dangerous territory, both physically and emotionally.
Right from the very start, Kennedy creates a strong sense of time and place, a Northern Ireland driven by suspicion and terror where people are manhandled at the drop of a hat. In this early scene, Cushla and another teacher, Gerry, are stopped at an army checkpoint while driving to a party. The situation soon escalates when Gerry answers back…
A few feet away, Gerry was facing a brick wall, his hands behind his ears, the scene lit by a streetlamp and the wink of his hazard lights. To his right and left, premises on the row were closed and caged by metal, apart from a chip shop a few doors up, THE RITZ in large red letters on its cracked sign. A length of loose guttering was drooling thick, rusty liquid on to his forehead. He lifted a hand to wipe it away and the soldier tapped his elbow with the butt of the gun. (p. 35)
The divisions between the religions are brilliantly portrayed, from the explicit hostilities on the McGeown’s estate to the more subtle microaggressions Cushla experiences from one of Michael’s friends. But, as Michael himself says at one point, ‘it’s not about what you do here […] It’s about what you are’. In this environment, a person is defined by their name, where they live and which school they went to – factors that take precedence in determining someone’s identity and the tribe to which they belong.
Kennedy also draws our attention to the way in which shocking reports of violence have become a part of day-to-day life in this community, even for children as young as seven. At the headmaster’s insistence, each class must start the day with The News – the children’s bulletins of newsworthy events spanning the political and the personal – an activity designed to make the children more ‘aware of the world around them’.
The Protestant Action Force has claimed responsibility for the shooting dead of two men in a bar in the New Lodge area.
‘Bye Bye Baby’ is still number one. (p. 116)
Cushla thinks the children know too much already – another source of frustration as she tries to shield her pupils from the horrors unfolding around them.
Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now. (p. 19)
The characterisation is terrific here, especially in the portrayal of Cushla, who comes across as a fully-formed character on the page. Spirited, furious, passionate and caring, she is desperate to break free from the constraints of her situation. Kennedy’s supporting characters are highly memorable, too – especially Gina (Cushla’s semi-comatose mother), who briefly pulls herself together when the McGeowns get into trouble, and Davy’s older brother, Tommy, an angry teenager with his own crush on Cushla.
In summary, Trespasses is a hugely impressive debut. Kennedy has created an entirely relatable world in which the passions of an illicit love affair are played out again a backdrop of sectarian conflict. Here we see ordinary people living in extraordinary times, buffeted by a history of violence that can erupt at any moment. There are no easy answers or moral judgements here, but the questions the novel raises are as timely as ever – especially in a society still torn apart by deep-rooted divisions.
Trespasses is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.
I thought this was an extraordinary novel. Making the political personal vividly illustrates the pain of the Troubles, and Kennedy’s writing is so striking. I’d highly recommend Kennedy’s short story collection, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac, Jacqui.
Yes, exactly! The way she weaves together the political and the personal feels so impressive. never forced or contrived, just a thoroughly absorbing read. I think you had this on your Booker Prize wishlist, IIRC? It would have been lovely to see it on the official longlist. Might it be a candidate for this year’s Women Prize for Fiction, or do the timings not quite fit? Anyway, a tremendous novel. I’ll be interested to try her short stories, so thanks for the tip.
Yes, it was on my Booker wishlist but you’re right about the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It would certainly qualify for next year’s. Might have been a candidate for the late lamented Costa, too.
And what a great title for a short story collection too!
Yes, I wonder whether it refers to a particular story or an overarching theme…
Maybe the judges for the Rathbones Folio Prize will take a look at it when that comes around again? Last year’s shortlist was excellent – full of interesting, high-quality books.
Yes, I noticed that, too. I loved the Costa for its variety but the Rathbones might fill that gap.
Yes, it looks as if they’re heading that way by splitting it into three categories. An excellent move, I think!
What a good choice of a novel to review. Well done on the no spoilers! I haven’t read it. I do have an earlier book by Louise Kennedy that I’ll try to read at some point. x
Thanks! I’m glad you feel I’ve struck the right balance here – hopefully just enough info to spark readers’ interest without giving away too many spoilers. Her short story collection sounds excellent too, so I’ll be interested to hear how you get on. Do let me know!
I’ve been dithering over whether or not to get this, but I think your review has tipped me over (my late mum’s father was of Belfast Protestant stock, and I tend to tiptoe around the Troubles).
It’s an excellent novel, Annabel, although I understand your reticence given your Grandfather’s Belfast background. In the acknowledgements, Kennedy mentions that it’s a work of fiction albeit based on true events – something that makes it all the more arresting as the story plays out…
This sounds another excellent read, with both the individual, personal elements and having to live them out in a fraught environment seeming equally well done. Its unsettling to think from our relatively safe corners of the world that living amidst violence is a reality for so many.
You’re right, it’s really unsettling – especially as similar stories are almost certainly playing out in various parts of the world right now. I remember hearing about The Troubles on the news when I was growing up in the 1970s, but it all seemed somewhat distanced from our relatively cushioned position in the South of England. This book, however, puts the reader right in the thick of it, just like the children in Cushla’s school.
Great review as always, Jacqui, and this does sound a powerful read. I’m old enough to remember the times when the Troubles were constantly in the news, and I despaired then (and still do) that religious beliefs can cause so much hatred and violence. How awful it must have been to live in the middle of it, and if this book gets that across then it might stand as a warning to modern warring factions…
Thanks, Karen. Like you, I remember The Troubles being in the news during the 1970s. By and large, it all seemed so horrific, albeit somewhat removed from our relatively distanced position in Southampton. But then, in the late ’70s, a bomb went off in a carpet shop in the city centre (as part of a co-ordinated series of bombings across various cities over here), and the violence really hit home…
I think Kennedy captures the tensions in her community so well. It’s a really impressive novel inspired by true events, something that makes it all the more devastating as the denouement plays out.
So much wonderful writing from Irish Writers. Edna O’Brien was one of the first and was widely denounced. I see she has just won the Pleasure of Reading Prize, but still not the Nobel.
Yes, I agree. Claire Keegan, Lucy Caldwell, Audrey Magee and now Louise Kennedy – the quality of writing coming out of Ireland is so impressive right now, especially from this generation of women writers. I still recall the discussions about Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls in my mum’s family twenty or so years after its initial release! She’s paved the way for so many women writers over the years…
This sounds fantastic. The period of the Troubles is one I find fascinating to read about it was such a tumultuous time for people in NI. It sounds as though the author balances the stories of these characters with the wider situation perfectly. Definitely another for my list.
Excellent! I’m glad you like the sound of it, Ali. Your review of Brian Moore’s The Lies of Silence came to mind as I was reading this one. I’ll have to pick up a copy of it at some point, once my TBR is a little more manageable. It’s spiralling out of control right now!
This sounds fascinating – in part because I am in the middle of a reread of Joan Lingard’s five book series set mostly in Belfast in the 70s. I think my book group would like this but not out in the US until November. I will look forward to it then.
Oh, excellent! I’m glad you like the sound of it, especially as a possibility for your book group as there’s so much to discuss. The way that Kennedy pulls together the personal and political seems very natural and accomplished, everything feels so intertwined. It’s a striking period of history, one that remains highly relevant today…
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Wow, this sounds so impressive and striking. I’m not sure I could deal with it myself, but it’s important these times are being written about so carefully and richly.
Yes, I found it pretty hard-hitting but very absorbing. It’s easy to get heavily invested in these characters as Kennedy portrays them so clearly and completely. And, as you say, it’s important that these stories continue to be told, especially given that Northern Ireland is back on the political agenda again…
This sounds tremendous. There are many novels set against the background of The Troubles which don’t get the mix of personal and political right. Anna Burns’ Milkman was a rare exception in recent years. Delighted to be able to add Kennedy to that list. I do wonder why, given the strength of your praise, why she didn’t make even the long list for the Booker prize.
You know, it’s funny. I’d seen a few other readers / reviewers tipping it for inclusion on the Booker longlist in advance, so it was a little surprising not to see it there. Maybe it would have made the cut under the previous criteria (writers from the Commonwealth rather than the whole world), but as I’ve only read three books from the official longlist it’s rather tricky to tell. Anyway, it’s a really terrific novel, and – as you’ve picked up from my review – the intertwining of the personal and political feels very believable and compelling. You’ve also reminded me that I haven’t read Milkman, which I ought to remedy at some point – many thanks for the nudge.
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