Poet, singer, flautist, arts manager and magical prose stylist, Ciaran Carson has written a spellbinding book on his Belfast. Patricia Craig praises the postman's son
Towards the end of his remarkable new prose work, The Star Factory (Granta, pounds 13.99), Ciaran Carson has a footnote that quotes the entry on Dinnshenchas in Robert Welch's Oxford Companion to Irish Literature. We learn that Dinnshenchas "reflects a mentality in which the land of Ireland is perceived as being completely translated into story: each place has a history which is continually retold".

Dinnshenchas, or more correctly dinnseanchas, has to do with the lore of place-names and the allure of places. In The Star Factory, Carson entertainingly subjects his native Belfast - "the dark city of Belfast", as he has called it elsewhere - to an extended reinvention. It's not the first time he has engaged in such an enterprise. Belfast has always loomed large in his iconography, and his approach to its particulars - its streets and edifices and flotsam and miasmas - is increasingly spellbinding and idiosyncratic. "I think at first I had a pattern in my head, though maybe I think now/ it changed", he wrote with a certain prescience in a poem called "The Patchwork Quilt" in his 1978 pamphlet The Lost Explorer.

Indeed, a change in tone and manner has been apparent since 1986, when The Irish For No (Carson's second full-length poetry collection) turned its back with a swagger on the simple lyricism and deftness of his earliest work. Carson's lines grew longer, his style took an anecdotal turn and his themes gained in pungency, redolent above all of Belfast in the 1980s: gritty, beleaguered and unregenerate. You can check the movement forward by reading "The Patchwork Quilt" with its unassuming impersonation - "It took me twenty years to make that quilt" - alongside the later "Patchwork", which assembles its images with bravado and originality. The same line ("It took me twenty years...") also gets into the second poem, but embedded in a much more elaborate evocation of potent swatches of the past. The same kind of constructive unravelling, or obsessive deconstruction, is a distinctive feature of The Star Factory.

Among the patches of "Patchwork" and the segments of The Star Factory is a remembered, or archetypal, excursion up the Black Mountain outside Belfast. When "nearly at the summit", the narrator's father pauses to light a cigarette, a Park Drive or Woodbine, before pointing down to indicate the components of their own home ground: Gallaher's Tobacco Factory, Clonard Monastery, the rows and rows of red-brick terraces, church spires and mill chimneys, barracks, schools "mill dams, reservoirs, ponds, sinks and sluices", all bearing names which are infinitely conducive to storytelling.

Take the Star Factory of the title. This was, apparently, a boys' clothing manufacturer located at 322 Donegall Road, Belfast. (I was born and lived for 20 years at 551 Donegall Road, and I have no recollection of it - however, a repository of flannel trousers wouldn't have held much interest for me, unlike the Carnegie Library farther down the road, to which I, like Carson, was drawn incessantly.) Over this utilitarian building, Carson superimposes a fabricated superstructure until it turns into a hectic workplace like something out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It becomes the habitation of ghostly seamstresses or a transformation zone where "words were melted down and like tallow cast into new moulds".

What gives The Star Factory its unique flavour is the alternation of foot-off-the-ground narration - not to say a stellar perspective, with the disembodied author hovering over the city like a recording angel - and down-to-earth concern with specifics: the names of businesses in the Corn Market, the hearths of houses (long demolished) in the Lower Falls, the smell of plaster pervading the half-rural housing estates.

Like its predecessor, Last Night's Fun (1996), ostensibly about Irish traditional music but ranging over a good many related topics, this book is hard to classify. Part scholarly hotch-potch, part inscrutable memoir, part intensive appraisal of a singular locality, it engages to the full in the kind of "rambling ambiguity" applauded by the author in the hands of a master storyteller such as his father (an authoritative presence in the book), and thereby ducks out of any straightforward category. The dust-jacket has it down as fiction, but this is a misnomer. It is, as much as anything, a book about storytelling, its structure is determined by the principle of association. One thing leads to another, as in a traditional ballad or tale.

Carson has bilingualism among his literary assets. As the title of his award-winning collection, First Language, discloses, Irish came first - unusually for 1950s Belfast - though English wasn't far behind. He is also an accomplished flute-player and singer; music and traditional arts come under his responsibility at the Northern Irish Arts Council, where he has worked since 1976.

One thing leads to another: there he is peering at the bole of a tree in the Falls Park c1958; the next minute, he's in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, comparing a reconstructed worker's house from Sandy Row with its Falls Road equivalent. Furniture and ornaments are the same, he says, on both sides of the sectarian divide.

So are other things. At one point, he quotes a passage from Robert Harbinson's No Surrender (1960), about a Protestant upbringing. Very gingerly, the hero and friends approach enemy territory - in this instance, the upper part of the Donegall Road. As in a mirror, they might have seen Catholic children, equally tentative, coming from the opposite direction.

The Star Factory is a book without an ideological slant. It deals, for the most part, with the ingredients of ordinary life, transfigured by the intensity and clairvoyance of the scrutiny brought to bear on them. You can't, however, grow up in places nurturing clandestine affiliations, such as West Belfast, without absorbing something of their exudations into your system. Carson's postman father learnt not only Irish but, we're told, Esperanto into the bargain - the latter "to subvert the world dominance of English". Carson acknowledges "a tremble of loyalty" to the almost invisible, relatively innocent republicanism of the mid-century, whose adherents included one of his uncles.

This Odd Man Out incarnation of Belfast is one of the versions of the city which gets a showing in The Star Factory. It adds its seedy cinematic glamour to the bland local lore of Cathal O'Byrne, the anti-Home Rule antics of George A Birmingham, the Reverend O'Hanlon's mid-Victorian hellhole of gin palaces and debauchery, the deprived-but-buoyant territory of Harbinson - all cited at one point or another. Carson has a poem, "The Exiles Club", in which a group of Irish Australians meets every week to reconstruct in imagination, the entire Falls Road area.

The Star Factory, more ambitiously, plots not only the physical city, but also a good many of the myths, memorabilia, layers of social history and customs associated with it. The postman's son, as you might expect, is adept at delivering all kinds of strange messages, postcards from byways and enticing packages. The result is a book to re-read and savour

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