IRA up stereotype alley

INVOLVED by Kate 0'Riordan, Flamingo £5.99
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The Independent Culture
ONE of the criticisms levelled against the media during the Northern Ireland conflict was that mainland Britain never got an idea of what it was like to live with the Troubles: how families and communities managed to survive day by day. News coverage of Belfast showed it to be a bombed- out hell-hole of terrible deprivation. Normal life seemed to be rendered invisible, even null and void, by the welter of bombs and terror besetting the place.

Kate O'Riordan's first novel redresses the balance. Involved begins with a long night for Eamon O'Neill, a young IRA volunteer who, on his travels, first savagely threatens an informer. He does so in front of the man's wife and son, coldbloodedly and in a way that is utterly at odds with the silent sulkiness he seems to suffer from at home. Still, just as with her other set-pieces, O'Riordan captures it effectively, particularly "the traitor's percipience as he tumbled towards inevitable exposure".

But a gripping opening is soon punctured by an extended trip up Stereotype Alley. A suddenly transformed, guilt-ridden Eamon visits a prostitute: a blowsy, obese woman offering mumsy suckling (the guilt business is apparently due to a boyhood incident in which his mother threatened to Bobbit him with a kitchen knife). The cringes don't end there: once home he finds priests hanging around the living room while his indomitable "Ma" suffers from an extreme case of SMS (Silent Matriarch Syndrome).

Then O'Riordan sensibly switches location and central protagonists. Danny is Eamon's brother, saturnine in a grungey sort of way, and luckily for Kitty, his posh, tousle-haired girlfriend, great in bed. Both are stuck in Dublin-based McJobs and both feel the pull of their families, his in Belfast, hers in Cork. If he has the IRA links, she has a dying father (whom she loves) and an alcoholic mother who hates her. Their interactions are sketched neatly, though it becomes clear that O'Riordan's real skill is not for dialogue, but for effectively sketching the psychological terrain of her characters. Here she is pistol-sharp, noting Kitty's perceptive take on Danny's generalised animosity: "She often wondered how much of it he feigned, because taking offence was a way of being right all the time."

The two move to London to escape, though nothing can prepare Kitty for the extent of Danny's involvement with terrorist activities, or for the powerful loyalty he feels for his family. She is left to wander the streets of Belfast with Danny's sister and suffer the silent disapproval of Ma. Then there is Eamon, emanating meanness and repressed sexuality. She makes the terrorist connection at a time of other, more personal upheaval, and, at breaking point, chooses a course of action that has serious repercussions.

In the spirit of a thriller, O'Riordan's novel gathers quite a pace; though not overtly political, it can hardly escape its own bigger ripples. In the vein of Bernard Mac Laverty's Cal, though with a strong female voice, here are those years of violence de-nationalised, made personal.