Up the pole with hapless families

No Drinking, No Dancing, No Doctors by Martina Evans (Bloomsbury, £14.99, 209pp)

Ordinary protestants are not exactly thick on the ground in the province of Munster, while those of an even more extreme persuasion tend to stick out like a sore thumb: in the case of the Poleites, the sect at the centre of Martina Evans's third novel, a thumb getting sorer and bulgier for want of medical attention. The Poleites (I am not sure if this sect exists, or whether Evans has invented it by amalgamating the Plymouth Brethren, say, with Christian Scientists and bearing in mind the expressions "poles apart" and "up the pole") view doctors as agents of the devil. They operate a strict embargo on any kind of remedial treatment for illness. "Playing God or doctor" is the ultimate term of criticism.

A young Poleite girl, Beulah Kingston, is told by her father when he spots the local doctor's son trying to help her carry a bucket of water, "The impertinent pup! He'd get you on your own for one minute and the next thing he'd be trying to take your temperature."

No Drinking, No Dancing, No Doctors is set mostly in the present, in an Irish village called Two Mile Cross, but the time of Beulah's girlhood is 50 years earlier, when Poleite prohibitions were easier to enforce. Nevertheless Beulah, a six-foot beauty (though she doesn't know it) with long black hair, emerges first as an unduly submissive heroine, and later as an unduly cranky old woman with a couple of tragedies behind her, and a less than amiable manner. Married off at 17 to a neighbouring Poleite - and Poleite men, with their wide-brimmed hats keeping the sun off their faces and awful skimpy beards were, even at the time, an exiguous species - Beulah nurtures in secret her passion for the Catholic doctor's son, and thereby, unwittingly, opens the way for a sharp dose of misery and blight. Elizabeth Bowen once wrote that "it is not only our fate, but our business, to lose innocence" - implying that if it's lost in the wrong spirit, then goodness knows what undesirable consequences will follow. Beulah's innocence is wrenched away from her, but then - as with all fanatical teachings - it was unnaturally imposed in the first place.

It's not the heroine's actions that impart a subversive quality to this novel, but rather the faintly sardonic undertone which is kept up throughout. At one point, the author remarks of her central character's granddaughter, "Beccy was like a child playing at being a grown-up". There's a sense in which the novel itself is composed in a similar mode. It adds up to an engaging and humorous, but curiously one-dimensional, exercise in social criticism. The small cast of characters - Reverend Moylan the Poleite minister, Mrs Treadle the radiographer, Sheila Sheehan the shopkeeper's daughter - are like old-fashioned figures on playing cards. The novel is itself small and enjoyable, eloquent and quaint, and artfully constructed.

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