Eurgh. I’m in a terrible fucking mood, absolutely bored out of my mind. I’ve spent the week getting excited about labels for the antiques business I work for, which indicates pretty clearly the state I’m in. To be fair to myself, the labels are good, but the fact that I’m genuinely happy about them is causing massive fucking self-hatred. I can now stare at the ugly, BALD, bastard in the mirror and know that he’s not only ugly, bald and a bastard, but he’s also a man who gets excited by labels. What have I become?
At the start of the week I went to Prague for about 45 hours, which should have been fun – it’s a beautiful city, hot wine everywhere, sex machine museum, etc etc etc – but the most excited I got about anything the whole time was this toilet paper art:
I was mainly thinking about the labels I was due to deal with when I returned home, feeling trepidation that my labelling might prove unpleasureable or even problematic. It didn’t, though: the labelling was amazing. What isn’t amazing is a life where labelling is the main highlight of your week. AND all of this excitement is even more embarrassing because the book I was reading in the handful of windows I’ve had between heady labelling sessions was a corker (pun-intended): Lisa McInerney’s Bailey’s Prize Winning debut novel: The Glorious Heresies.
The Glorious Heresies does everything a book is meant to do, and it does them spectacularly. As an early shock, it has a similar premise to recent “worst book I’ve ever read” The Bricks That Built The Houses (i.e. grim crims in a city), but The Glorious Heresies isn’t shit. The Glorious Heresies is brilliant. The Glorious Heresies is superb. The Glorious Heresies is almost as good as labelling.
Ryan Cusack is a fifteen-year-old drug dealer in Cork, down at the Arse End of Ireland (which was the name of McInerney’s unarchived blog). Georgie is a prostitute in a relationship based on mutual substance dependence. Jimmy Phelan is the local crime lord with his finger in every criminal pie, Tony Cusack is Ryan’s alcoholic widower father and Jimmy’s old schoolfriend, Tara Duane is a local weirdo with connections throughout the criminal world and a predilection for much younger men and Maureen is Jimmy’s newly un-estranged mother, who’s just murdered Georgie’s boyfriend and upsets the city enough to throw all these disparate people together in harrowing, hilarious, heavy-going and heartfelt ways. AGAIN: The Glorious Heresies is great.
I’m gushing a bit, because I haven’t read anything this good for a few weeks and there’s nothing else going on in my life other than labelling. This novel veers from the filthy to the emotive, from bathos to pathos, from high-fallutin’ evocations of depression and remorse to dirty little sex and drug scenes. It’s a booze-drenched, coke-lit, weed-heady, lust-hard, music-pumpin’, hunger-driven’ machine of a novel, diving through a disparate cast of characters as they get pulled close, and tragedies from earlier generations reoccur. McInerney paints a glorious picture of a dirty old town1, filling in layer after layer and colliding her characters with a satisfying smack. Occasional chapters slip into the first person and we’re into gently more vernacular Irish English, but other than that we’re within prose that’s comfortable wherever it takes us. This is a banging novel about responsibility, ageing, mishandled guilt, the smalltown-mentality, the inability to escape the places of one’s origin and the myriad ways in which people try to do it.
Prostitution is written about at length and in both a compassionate and objective perspective. There is pity and scorn, there is shame and hope. Every character who wanders into these words – even if they’re only present for a few pages, such as the fellow daytime drinker Tony almost shags or Maureen’s murder victim whose death begins the book – they’re all deep, and round, and relatable. They’ve all got problems – but don’t we all?2 – and McInerney drops us right into them. Whirlwind romances that led to unexpected pregnancies and bitter marriages; unwed mothers who were sent away to spare family shame; murders, bitter murders for love and for hatred and for fear; superciliousness; cleaning up other people’s messes; being fucked up, fucking up and getting fucked up. We are all over these character’s lives, and each of them – including Jimmy Phelan, who is the closest thing the text has to an antagonist – has a redeeming feature to weigh against the bad, or something bad to weigh against the pleasantries.
Barely anyone is sober, barely anyone isn’t involved in crime, barely anyone’s ever spent more than a couple of years outside of Cork. It’s great, The Glorious Heresies sucks you in and hammers you into the seedy heart of the seedy bit of this seedy city. (Note – Cork is officially NOT a shithole, according to this online poll.) Catholic guilt, organised crime, serious addiction, serious depression, the legal system, the Irish abortion laws, education, council estates, afternoon drinkers, corpse disposal, regret, regret, regret.
It’s about youth and growing up, about how adulthood isn’t all that appealing, about how sobriety isn’t all that wonderful and how ignoring your problems until you die because of them is a far easier thing to do than try to fix yourself. In Tony Cusack I saw a sad foreshadowing of how I could end up in twenty years, and then kept remembering, no, I’m older than that, more like fifteen. Shit…
The novel covers about five years in the lives of these deplorable-but-adorables. We see Ryan rise up the criminal ladder and his father slip deeper into the bottle’s grip. We see Maureen seek further ways to vent her anger at an imperfect life and we see Georgie seek “redemption from her sins”. Even the characters we don’t like, we care about. It is a close knit novel, every person in it is branded firm into the reader’s mind as they travel through it. Even as lives turn towards inevitable pain, I kept reading in hope, in human hope, with compassion.
This is a deeply engaging and emotional read. I laughed and cried, which is all I ever seek, and it’s yet more evidence of the bonanza of phenomenal fiction finding its way out of Ireland at the moment. I should probably spend more time over there, might calm me a bit. Because all the labelling I’m doing instead of living could well lead to an implosion.
A deservedly award-winning book. Give it a go.
1. I don’t think this post would be right without:
2. The best thing in my week was labelling. ↩
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