Book review: Mount Merrion, By Justin Quinn

Booms and busts – the state of the Irish nation, and the Irish family
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Like many of his contemporaries, the Irish poet and novelist, Justin Quinn is interested in exploring how economic boom and bust has affected his country's psyche.

Taking the form of a family saga, his assured debut plays out over half a century – a state-of-the-nation novel as told through the fast-changing fortunes of middle-class married life.

It's 1959 when we first meet Declan Boyle – a patient in a newly built hospital in Galway. A young graduate, he's anxious to get over a lung condition that's preventing him from joining the Department of Finance as a civil servant. His father is a senior Dublin lawyer, but the rest of his forebears are still farming in Ardnabrayba – a rural backwater where he has spent most of his childhood summers herding livestock and helping his uncle clear the crop fields of rocks.

Declan eventually starts work, gets married and goes on to have two children. He and his wife, Sinead, are keen to embrace modern coupledom and their life revolves around supper parties and recipes culled from a crusty copy of Elizabeth David.

But soon Declan is seduced by the more glamorous rewards springing up outside the public sector. He starts up a tractor-manufacturing business in Ardnabrayba and goes on to make serious money. Back in his private life, there are ordinary frustrations, happinesses and tragedies.

Quinn's storytelling style is more sober than playful. Deftly capturing social encounters – conversations between nuns and bishops, hospital orderlies and entitled young men – his novel is filled with perfectly judged moments.

While he never matches Anne Enright's genius at creating an overarching sense of familial and social completeness, he does an effective job at interweaving past and present.

In the novel's early pages Declan recalls his visits to his uncle's and the local pub were he could "pick up the smell of porter, a flash of skirt, the churning strength of men". When Quinn the poet steps in, the novel takes off.