Paul McVeigh’s ambitious debut pits the half-term struggles of a pre-adolescent boy in the tempestuous run-up to his first day of ‘Big School’, against the explosive, sectarian world of Belfast’s Ardoyne during The Troubles.
I have very clear instructions. Don’t go to the top of the street cuz there’s always riots. Don’t go to the bottom of the street cuz there’s no-man’s-land and there’s always riots. Don’t go near the Bray or the Bone hills cuz that leads to Proddy Oldpark where theu throuw stones across the road from their side. Don’t go into the aul houses cuz a wee boy fell through the stairs in one and broke his two legs. I think his neck too. Ma could be exaggerating. Oh and don’t go onto the Eggy field cuz there’s glue-sniffers.
Young Mickey Donnelly must tread carefully through the pock-marked and bomb-stricken landscape of McVeigh’s keenly realised early 80s Belfast backdrop. The poverty, paranoia, and violence that stalk this dangerous and seemingly foreign landscape are illustrated with shocking clarity, whether in the home or on the streets. These dangers are amplified for Mickey, a boy who hasn’t quite hit puberty, whose favourite film is alternately The Wizard of Oz and Grease, who dreams of a glamorous life away from The Troubles in that haven for expatriated Irish citizens, America. He is a boy whose closest ally is his little sister, Wee Maggie, and whose list of enemies includes, at one time or another, everyone in the vicinity, up to and including his father and brother. As one can imagine, the testosterone-driven and politically divisive world of Belfast in the 1980s is not the ideal place for a young Catholic boy to navigate while exploring his sexuality.
I look for sex in the index. Montgomery Clift—Mammy loves him. I turn to the page. Holy crap! I don’t believe he was gay…He was probably just nice. He went with men and women! I’ve never heard of that before. Is that what actors do?
But it is in this world that McVeigh’s winning narrator is found, a loner riding—to his younger sister’s disdain—a galloping ‘Cham-p-ion The Won-der-Horse’. Derided by his schoolmates and potential suitors for his soprano and his penchant for drama and show tunes, Mickey sets out to be a good son, the only way he knows how.
Though it could be said that the novel is a little over-fond of reinterpreting the kitsch and neon of the early 80s, McVeigh does not shy away from the challenge of depicting the brutality and trauma that reigned during an age of political claustrophobia and sectarian unrest. And perhaps more could have been made of Mickey’s ‘episodes’, the lapses in concentration outside of which many of the dramatic turns of narrative occur, but ultimately The Good Son delivers a real sense of a damaged child within a broken family constrained by his society, while also presenting a refreshing portrait of the troubles through the eyes of one of the most beguiling and endearing narrators I have encountered in a long time. McVeigh and The Good Son are destined for prizes.
Phil Clement studied English and Creative Writing in Aberystwyth. Since he left there he has lived in a library, written short stories, and reviewed books. Currently he works as an assistant editor at Amberley Publishing. Follow Phil here.