Faber & Faber, £12 99, 260pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, By Glenn Patterson
A casualty of the 1941 blitz on Belfast was the Third Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street. Uncovered from the rubble was a slate inscribed by the church's architect, John Millar, who wanted posterity to know that his pristine design (completed in his 18th year) was nearly wrecked in his absence by a couple of local architects, Duff and Jackson (his foremost pair of bugbears), and only rescued on his return from abroad. Glenn Patterson includes Millar's declaration as an appendage to his resonant new novel. Its underlying theme is the making (and unmaking) of the city - though most of the action takes place in the 1830s, when Belfast was still little more than a Georgian country town.
The novel opens, however, in 1897, with protagonist Gilbert Rice a distinguished old gentleman of 85, about to revisit his earlier life and conjure up a version of Belfast bristling with bygone commerce and confidence. Gilbert is connected to the fabric of the setting through his friendship with architect Millar - real and invented characters mingle without strain - and to its history and ideologies through his grandfather, with whom he lives in an elegant house in Donegall Place. Reverberations from the failed uprising of 1798 are detectable in every walk of life, while the future is being plotted out in factories, mills, expanding shipyards and workers' terraces.
At 16, Gilbert secures employment as a clerk in the Ballast Office of the port, and gains a sense of the thrust and throb of the go-getting town, along with its darker aspect, its taverns and hullabaloos and murders and crooked deals. It's a time of transition, and Gilbert learns in the company of two fellow-clerks - about sky-larking and sex and important issues of the day. The dread of cholera makes Belfast people intolerant of foreign seamen as possible carriers of the disease.
Following a mishap on the Cave Hill, young Rice is carried into a nearby tavern known by the novel's intriguing title (which might also refer to the pulverising-and-renewing agenda of the town itself). Here Gilbert is ministered to by a Polish refugee named Maria, and thereafter embarks on the vibrant love affair. He also embarks on a course of action for the good of his town - and here we might wonder if the exorbitant outcome he plans isn't slightly at odds with his character. But everything falls into place in this brilliantly constructed novel, which garners the energies of the past while preserving detachment through its engagingly sardonic undertone. Patterson is alive to every nuance of his historical setting, as well as creating an engrossing work of the imagination.
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