After finishing the Booker longlist, I decided to try a book that perhaps should have been on the longlist, so I turned to Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, winner of the 2016 Bailey’s Prize. It turns out that it was published too early for the 2016 Booker, but it is the kind of book I like to see on the Booker list, and reading it restored my confidence in literary fiction—and in my ability to enjoy literary fiction.
The novel is set in Cork, among violent criminals, drug dealers, and prostitutes at various stages of life. It opens with a woman named Maureen killing an intruder in her home with a scapular. This death sets in motion a chain of events whose consequences last for years. Maureen calls her son, crime boss Jimmy Phelan, to do something about the body. Jimmy gets a man named Tony to help. Tony’s son, 15-year-old Ryan, is dealing drugs in a small way and falling in love with a classmate, Karine, in a big way. Tony and Ryan’s neighbor, Tara Duane, was a notorious madam but now hands out sandwiches to people on the street. One of those people is Georgie, a prostitute and addict and girlfriend of Robbie. Robbie is dead on the floor of Maureen’s house, a former brothel. He’d gone there looking for Georgie’s treasured scapular, a memento of her past that she lost when the brothel was turned into a home.
Got all that?
The tangled relationships are fitting for a novel where just about everyone feels entangled in a system they can’t escape. Most of these people do not have enough money or resources to control their destiny to any great degree. And those who do have it, like Karine, who appears to come from a well-off family, find themselves tied up by love. McInerney depicts their situations with compassion and moments of dark humor. (The humor only comes in occasional flashes. The book overall is not as funny as I expected from the handful of reviews I’d seen.)
One of the things that interested me in the book is its depiction of pregnancy and motherhood. Three women in the book, one in the past and two in the present, must deal with unexpected and unplanned pregnancies. Even though the Magdalen laundries were long closed for two or these women, that history casts a shadow, and Maureen’s memory of her own separation from her son Jimmy is a reminder of how things used to be. And what happens to the young mothers of the present raises questions about how much things have actually changed. How much choice do women have when they’re young or poor or just plain unprepared?
I was also especially appreciative of how a book that’s so gritty was also filled with moments of softness and delight. There are some beautifully perfectly rendered sex scenes, and the development of Ryan and Karine’s relationship is at times genuinely sweet, with much of the tension of the novel being in the adult reader’s knowledge that it can hardly stay that way. And Maureen’s fury, inappropriate as it may be at time, feels right, given the circumstances, and, in a way, it’s the thing that provides the most hope for these characters. That makes me like her all the more.
I received an e-galley of this novel for review consideration via Edelweiss.