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.