The horrors of Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland belong in the catalogue of 20th-century enormities, and make a powerful subject for fiction. Louise Dean, in her second novel, approaches the topic with compassion and determination. It's 1979, with a hunger strike by Republican prisoners in the offing, and the dirty protest in full force.
Almost everyone in This Human Season is up shit creek, in one way or another. Dean's narrative, resolutely even-handed, concentrates by turns on an ex-British army novice prison officer named John Dunn, who lives with his girlfriend in East Belfast, and a Republican family from Ballymurphy in the West.
In the Republican family, the Morans, Kathleen's son Sean is in Long Kesh, on the H-Blocks, and addicted to defiance, which causes him to spend a lot of time undergoing punishment. Other addictions surface: to drink, to rioting, to martyrdom, to sex with strangers. A feature of West Belfast, in reality and in the novel, is the neighbourhood camaraderie. That doesn't preclude an element of good-natured contempt for weaker individuals like Kathleen's barman husband, a drunkard and teller of tall tales.
The spirit, whole-heartedness and flair for repartee in places like Ballymurphy are presented in contrast to the sense of wariness, of keeping oneself to oneself, which characterises less exuberant parts of the city - such as the unspecified district where Dunn has made his home. As a kind of backdrop to the story, you get the funerals of prison officers "executed" by the IRA.
The screws at Long Kesh, all endowed with colourful nicknames like Frig and Shandy, are well-versed in strategies for survival: "We keep them down, however we can." The novel does not shirk the repugnant details of clandestine hostilities: the jam jars full of urine collected by ten-year-olds to pour on soldiers' heads, the prison beatings administered by guards.
Dean goes full tilt at things, not always with happy results. Local geography and idiom are often askew. Certain areas seem to be telescoped together. Children in Ballymurphy do not call their mothers "Mummy"; people do not say, "I shan't" and "Shall we?". A strand of Cockney has got entangled with Belfast vernacular, and garbled phrases in the Irish language appear.
Never mind: the major ingredients of the conflict are in place, the riven society and attendant brutalities, the army raid in the dead of night, the priest in the throes of theological distress, the mutilated streetscapes, belligerents bearing petrol bombs, soldiers with rubber bullets.
Dean doesn't minimise the worst aspects of 1970s Belfast, with its damp cold, apprehension and outrage. As someone remarks to a visitor foolhardy enough to take a black taxi up the Falls Road, ignorant of the depth of animosity: "Welcome to hell".
Patricia Craig's life of Brian Moore is published by Bloomsbury
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