Letter from Belfast: Belfast, North Carolina

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The Independent Culture
LIONEL SHRIVER was born in North Carolina and grew up in New York City, but she has lived in Belfast since 1987. Her most recent novel, Ordinary Decent Criminals, has just been published in paperback (Flamingo, pounds 5.99). An active and dedicated novelist with two previous books published, Shriver never had any doubts: 'I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old.' She finally left the US in 1985 to travel. 'I took a six-month bicycle trip around Europe and that was the first time I went to Ireland. I lived in Israel for a while, then came back to Ireland in 1987. Apart from a year spent in Kenya, I've lived in Belfast ever since.'

Ordinary Decent Criminals is best described as a post-Troubles novel: its action is placed in late-Eighties Belfast, long after the momentum of the Sixties and Seventies unrest has dissipated. Shriver elaborates: 'The novel looks at the situation now. I've listened to people talk about the Sixties and Seventies days. But as far as I can see it's not the same now. The perception from abroad is that this place never changes; that history has become calcified. Yet even in the six years I've lived here I've noticed big differences.

'I think some people tend to have a curiously nostalgic relationship with the early Troubles. A lot has changed. But parts of Northern Ireland have developed an addiction to the excitement and media attention. And I'm not convinced that as weary as people say they are of turmoil that they really want it to go away. If they don't love the Troubles, they can at least endure them.'

Ordinary Decent Criminals is set in Belfast during 1987 and '88. The city has a jaded atmosphere: what began as a spontaneous, morally-driven civil rights campaign has degenerated into a grim attritional routine. The novel centres on how two malcontents try to resolve their inner conflicts against the backdrop of historical deadlock. 'The main characters like to play elaborate games,' Shriver says. 'This allows them to avoid making commitments or decisions. The Troubles themselves have become a game; so much so that what they end up being about is who wins and who loses rather than what they win or lose.'

Shriver doesn't rely on the glamour of violence or political intrigue for dramatic effect: she consciously shuns the hackneyed Ulster fiction plots - the Romeo and Juliet romance yarn and the IRA-bomber- with-a-heart-of-gold cliche. 'Many passages deal with how people manage their feelings in relation to the external historical conflict. But it's not just a Joycean ramble through their minds.'

The background details and dialogue ring very true to life; and the story is anchored in a recognisable Belfast. Shriver was able to infiltrate the local ethos and quickly assimilate its culture. 'Most of my research was done first-hand by direct contact with local people and events. If someone used an expression I didn't understand I asked them to explain it and noted it down. People were generally enthusiastic and helpful - they thought it was fun explaining their own sayings. The language says as much about Northern Ireland as the politics. It's got great life, imagination, music and humour. I did a certain amount of background reading initially to get a good sense of the situation here. But I think that too much academic research is dangerous for fiction writers because the material can become dull.'

Many American readers were confused. This didn't surprise Shriver. 'I don't think it was terrifically accessible to Americans. It's very difficult to write about the politics for foreign readers - you have to continually explain details. The authenticity of the book's details ended up being a disadvantage in the States. The expressions I loved, nobody understood.'

Humour is a vital element in the novel. Shriver has a mischievous, hard-edged wit which borders on the cynical. 'I try to expose everyone involved in the conflict. It was a great creative advantage that my own dark humour and the local sense of the ridiculous coincided. I can identify with that temperamentally. It's one of the reasons I'm still here.

'I was aiming for an even-handed disrespect: to offend as many different groups as possible - ideally all of them, so that no-one was left out. I was flattered to be simultaneously accused of being anti-republican and republican. I was very amused when a historian, writing in The Times, called me a 'typical American republican sympathiser'.'

The author's indifferent comic perspective is best revealed in the novel's 'Glossary of Troublesome Terms' - originally added to the American version and retained in the UK edition. Doubling as an often hilarious guide to Ulster politics and an astute mini-essay on the complicated nature of the situation, the glossary contains the kind of home truths which have eluded political analysts for decades.

Shriver doesn't see herself as a Troubles Writer. She has no illusions about becoming a Belfast-based novelist, and has a realistic attitude to living here. 'There's a degree of outsiderness that I try to deliberately maintain. I like to leave regularly, if only to go to London for a few days, because suddenly Northern Ireland disappears. If you stay here solidly it closes in on you. It's valuable to be able to pull back from the situation now and again and see its real world perspective.'

For now, Shriver is content to be a participant in ordinary decent Belfast life - a resident alien who continues to absorb the city's eccentric atmosphere. Apart from occasional trips to New York, Shriver lives and works at her secluded house in South Belfast. She plays squash, goes out to restaurants and bars and reads until the early hours. Her fourth novel, called Game Control and set in Kenya, is due out in 1994.