I first came across Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses when it was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards this year, a stellar list that also includes Audrey Magee’s brilliant novel, The Colony. Trespasses is Kennedy’s first novel and it is an impressive debut indeed, prompting me to immediately purchase her short story collection, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac.
Trespasses is a sensitively written, gut-wrenching tale of forbidden love and fractured communities set during the Troubles.
The setting is mid 1970s Northern Ireland, a small town a few miles away from Belfast. Our protagonist 24-year old Cushla Lavery is Catholic, a school teacher by profession and in the evenings volunteers as a bartender at the family pub now managed and run by her brother Eamonnh. It is an agreement between brother and sister that while he takes on the responsibility of the day to day running of the pub, Cushla takes it upon her to look after their mother Gina who is quickly transforming into a raging alcoholic.
It is during one of her evening stints at the pub that she first meets Michael Agnew, a Protestant barrister defending IRA criminals, who subtly comes to her rescue when she is at the receiving end of some unwelcome, loutish behaviour of one of the regular customers. Nothing much happens on that particular evening and things go on as usual, but Michael leaves an impression on Cushla; she is entranced by his personality and instantly attracted to him.
But there’s a problem. Not so much the age (in his 50s, Michael is more than twice Cushla’s age) but the fact that he is a Protestant when Cushla is Catholic – the difference in faith a critical explosive factor at the height of the Troubles when such unions were deemed unthinkable. As if the stark contrast in religious background were not enough, Cushla and Michael come from different socio-economic spheres; in terms of wealth and class they are poles apart. Michael is sophisticated, cultured, discerning, wealthy and privileged. Cushla has a working class upbringing with none of the panache and style so synonymous with Michael’s social set.
There are other complications. Michael is married with a grown up son. Despite it all, Michael and Cushla are increasingly drawn to each other and under the pretext of teaching the Irish language to him and his circle of friends, Cushla begins to see him frequently. Ultimately, they embark on a whirlwind, torrid affair; an illicit relationship that has to remain a secret at all costs given the highly charged, volatile political environment and escalating tensions all around them.
The Northern Ireland troubles form a potent landscape against which this love story plays out, where people are judged by their identity at birth and religious affiliations; they are defined by what they are and not by what they do, the dangers and limitations of being pigeonholed imminent with no room whatsoever for nuance.
That the violence has become a part of daily life and has been deeply ingrained into the psyche of ordinary people is disturbingly evident in Cushla’s classroom as well. Part of the syllabus requires a discussion of current affairs and many of the chapters begin with the students matter-of-factly narrating the latest incidents of violence, bombings, and death as if disconcertingly they are a natural part of daily life.
Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven- year-old child now.
Enmeshed into these storylines is another sub plot – one of Cushla’s students Davy McGeown comes from a family that has regularly been the object of ridicule and racial slurs in the neighbourhood further complicated by his parents’ mixed marriage – the mother is Protestant while the father is Catholic. While their small town is reputed to be much more tolerant than the big Irish cities, the spectre of hate is never far behind and the McGowan family often bears the brunt of this hatred (culminating in a brutal attack on the father who is left to die) so much so that acts of kindness towards the family increasingly begin to be viewed through a prism of suspicion.
As the novel progresses, these various threads and storylines merge and move towards a conclusion that is truly poignant and heartbreaking.
The novel throbs with a panoply of themes – forbidden love, the unbridgeable wealth and class divides, the austere unforgiving face of religion, divisive politics, sudden eruption of violence intertwined with the mundane, a sense of communal harmony driven by small acts of kindness…but more importantly the devastating impact of protracted hostility and simmering tensions on a community that is already on tenterhooks but is desperately trying to live normally. The title feels apt given that in so many ways the book is an exploration of the consequences of crossing rigidly defined boundaries and venturing into unchartered territories.
Kennedy’s characters are wonderfully drawn and fully realised; they feel so authentic and real and she has expertly depicted the complexities of their personalities further elevated by the difficulty of their situations. Cushla is a respected, well-liked teacher, caring and popular with her students. However, the assurance and self-possession she displays in her professional life is not always mirrored in her personal life where she often feels out of depth. Her strained relationship with her mother Gina, a bitter and resentful woman, is exacerbated by the latter’s incessant drinking and Cushla is at her wits end when it comes to tackling this problem.
The one thing that Cushla and Gina have in common is a sense of community spirit as they go out of their way to assist the McGeowns during their period of crisis, actions that will ominously come back to haunt them.
Michael Agnew’s persona is also excellently conveyed – passionate about his cause, intelligent, empathetic and vulnerable. It would be easy to dismiss him as a cad – he is after all a married man having an extramarital affair, but it is to the author’s credit that despite his flaws it becomes difficult not to feel for him. Michael is clearly in love with Cushla even when she remains doubtful of their relationship which has doom written all over it, and the class differences do not bother him in the way it troubles Cushla.
The steady unfurling of their relationship is beautifully rendered by Kennedy with all the doubts, longing, passion, complications, fears likely to form the substance of such a secret liaison; how Cushla is often consumed by yearning for Michael, periods of silence when she hears nothing from him, the pressing need to keep their affair a secret and yet the excitement fueled by its very danger, not to mention the conflicting emotions rooted deep within her of how unalike they are in many ways. At some level, Cushla aspires for a better life, the kind led by Michael and yet she can’t help feeling like an outsider in the company of his upper class friends.
A slow meal, lulls between courses when he asked to see the wine list and noisily sloshed their recommendations around in his mouth. She thought of the lunch at Easter that degenerated into a row, how little they cared about what they ate, the crumble untouched amidst the main-course plates. Her gut burned with want. That she might get away from her family, her mother, and be with this man.
Sounds she could feel on her skin. His voice. Silver tinkling against porcelain. Corks popping. He said the last time he ate here Stanley Kubrick was at a table in the corner. He had been in Dublin filming Barry Lyndon. The IRA sent him a death threat, ordering him to leave in twenty-four hours; he left in twelve. Maybe there were too many scenes of redcoat encampments, he said, British soldiers tramping around Ireland, Union Jacks billowing behind them. His actor friend, the man who was in A Clockwork Orange, said some of it had been filmed by candlelight and it looked like an Old Master. Michael couldn’t wait to see it. The chiaroscuro. The slowness of it. We’ll come back when the film is released, he said, go to see it in one of the big cinemas. We can eat here again, maybe in the winter when they serve wild things.
Trespasses, then, is a nuanced, gorgeously written tale of a passionate sensual affair, of ordinary people trying to lead a normal life amid extraordinary circumstances. A richly layered and brilliantly observed novel written with care and a lot of heart, this is straightforward, linear storytelling that has nothing showy about it; its biggest strength are the characters that wonderfully come alive on the pages. Suffused with an air of tenderness, quiet anguish, compassion, fragility, and aching sadness, this is a novel that leaves a lingering impact long after the final pages are turned. Highly recommended!