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Book review: Home is where the stories are told

Belfast, city of contrasts, has a hypnotic effect on its many writers. Michael Glover assesses a new childhood memoir
The last time he read his poems at London's South Bank, the Belfast- born poet Ciaran Carson, through that thick, engaging stutter of his, began by softening up the audience with an Irish pub joke. It was a characteristically bemusing and somewhat circuitous way of getting at the heart of the matter. In The Star Factory he has written a maze-like autobiography of sorts. It is not so much the tale of a young man growing to maturity along the Falls Road with an Irish-speaking, storytelling postman for a father, as an extended demonstration of the way in which language can raise up and consecrate the ongoing, fractious epic which constitutes that much blasted city, Belfast.

The name itself is a puzzle. Belfast means many different things in its Irish form: a ford, a wallet, an axis, an axle. The mapping of the place has been a curiosity, too. According to Carson, some 18th century maps proudly named streets and avenues which were never to exist at all. It was a city not of stolid fact, but of generous aspiration. Carson himself has lived a life of ambiguity within this shifting place. He was raised in the Irish language, but outside the front door the language of the streets was generally English. His name is an oddball too, adding to that sense of him being of rich and complicated provenance. Carson, after all, is a Prod name, is it not? Whereas Ciaran, well, that's proper Irish, surely to God ...

His father's father's father was a Protestant cabinet-maker from Ballymena who "turned Taig when he came to Belfast looking for work, and took Catholic wives, and sired a family of 22, 13 by the first before she died, and nine by the second." At least, that's what Carson's storytelling father told him on his wedding day, to clear up a few misunderstandings.

Carson's autobiography twists and weaves about like the most piquant of jazz solos. It does not proceed in any straightforward chronological fashion, but often takes the cue for its many fascinating divagations from things that other, less eccentric autobiographers might regard as secondary to their concerns - dockets, lading bills, or the mucking out of the No 3 Flour Loft in McWatters' Bakery in the Markets area: "Here, ancient flour was drifted up the honeycomb walls of the chamber, and as we shovelled into it, thousands of dormant moths, grey-backed shellacky slivers of things, teemed into life and light, swarming confusedly about our hands and eyebrows in a flitting pandemonium ..."

At other times Carson plunges deep into the etymology of street names, and stays down there for whole paragraphs at a stretch, shining his intense light on the hidden significances of surface meaning. What is missing from this way of mapping a self within a city is much sense of other people, other than Carson's immediate family. Siblings play walk-on roles when the autobiographer needs confirmation of some fact or other. The true hero of this book is, however, Carson's father, the postman, who taught Carson that the only valid way of envisaging reality is through storytelling, and that every story, no matter how many times retold, changes in the telling. Stories need to be infinitely renewable if they are to survive. And in that respect they resemble the fabric of Belfast.

Carson's Belfast is an almost dream-like location, a palimpsest of vanished and vanishing places - shipyards, derelict factories, abandoned mills - the whole shot through with a strong and dragging sense of nostalgia for the sharp flavours, smells and noises of childhood.

All this seems a long way, temperamentally, from other Belfast writers of recent years. Robert McLiam Wilson's novel Eureka Street (1997), for example, describes a fictional Belfast between the two cease-fires in sharp, clean language. Its main character, Chuckie Lurgan, a fat, bald, stupid Prod who manages to get rich by means swift and foul, ducks and weaves his way through life like any con-man anywhere. Belfast is a tough place to be - but so is Middlesbrough, McLiam Wilson seems to be saying. In an earlier novel, Ripley Bogle (1989), Wilson tells his story through the mouth of an extraordinarily articulate Irish tramp adrift on the streets of London.

Novelist Maurice Leitch, although he was born in Co Antrim, was educated in Belfast. As a young man, Leitch's great favourite among contemporary novels was Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a Nottingham tale of working-class people. The central character of his last novel, the psychological thriller Gilchrist, is a hell-fire Irish preacher on the run in Spain who happens to have taken the church funds with him. His next novel, The Smoke King, set in the Ulster of the 1940s, will be about a black GI on the run from a murder he didn't commit.

There are interesting similarities and differences here. The two Belfast novelists can allow themselves the imaginative latitude to wander, in pursuit of fictional themes, away from their native places, and to recognise the ways in which what is peculiarly familiar to them is also common to much that is elsewhere. In contrast, Carson the poet, in this autobiography and in the best of his poetry (such as Belfast Confetti, 1990), seems in thrall to Belfast. It is almost as much as he ever needs to write about. It is his inexhaustible wellspring. It transfixes him like a fly on a pin.

'The Star Factory' by Ciaran Carson is published by Granta Books at pounds 13.99