Books: London Irish try but fail to convert

Patricia Craig is disappointed by a melancholy chronicle of migrant life in the Smoke: The Water Star by Philip Casey Picador, pounds 14.99, 434pp
SOME NOVELS promise more narrative sustenance than they actually deliver. On the face of it, Philip Casey's The Water Star would seem to have raised an intriguing topic - the London Irish in the early postwar years - with scope for elaborate plot-construction and bags of social illumination. However, what we get is an assembly of more or less miserable, fraught individuals, and none of them very efficiently realised.

Hugh and Brendan Kinsella are the emigrant son-and-father duo whose fortunes form the mainspring of the action. They work as builders' labourers and inhabit rough-and-ready lodgings, before Hugh suddenly gathers up his belongings and scarpers to Cheapside, after having seen his mother's ghost at the foot of his bed and given his father the impression that he had gone round the twist.

Hugh is accosted in a cafe by an Englishwoman, a veteran of the Blitz, whom he later marries although she is sharing her house and bed with a melancholic German about to succumb to clinical depression and require electro-convulsive therapy. Hugh's glum father, in the meantime, has been taken in hand by a crippled ex-schoolteacher named Sarah, a woman forbidden to darken the door of her Irish mother back in Co Clare after she gave birth to a daughter out of wedlock. All these people have terrible tragedies in their lives; and more is to come.

Philip Casey is better at describing encounters between this cast of characters than at evoking an atmosphere. But they are given to pretty inconsequential behaviour - interrupting a tender moment to run off down an alleyway for no obvious reason, or aiming a kick at an inoffensive cat - and lack the smallest faculty for laughing at themselves.

This is a book about suffering, and not specifically the suffering of exile, although that comes into it in a perfunctory way. It is presided over by dead mothers, dead children, casualties of the Blitz, the sorrows of Europe and all the rest, while concerning itself, on the surface at least, with the mundane vexations of a charmless and grubby existence enlivened only by a pub evening, a snack in a Lyons Corner House or some wham-bang sex. This is a pity, because it only required a more powerful scenario - or one, at least, carrying stronger implications - and a lightening of tone to stop The Water Star falling as flat as it does.