An intruder breaks into Maureen Phelan’s apartment. Without thinking, she brains him with a Holy Stone, a religious relic. Worrying over the dead body and the blood seeping into the grout on the kitchen floor, she calls her son James, a gangster, to deal with the mess. James asks his old friend Tony Cusack to help, figuring that Tony—who doesn’t have a job and is trying to raise six children on his own—needs the money and can be relied on to keep his mouth shut. Tony recognizes the corpse as Robbie, a junkie, and lets the name slip to Maureen, who then starts to see Robbie’s sad ghost wandering around the house. When Georgie, Robbie’s girlfriend, starts looking for him and comes to Tony’s house asking questions, things start to get complicated. Throw into this mix Ryan, Tony’s 15-year-old son, embarking simultaneously on a career as a drug dealer and his first love affair; Tara, a nosy woman preying on people under the guise of doing good; and a religious cult called Christians Active In Light, and things get very complicated indeed.
Lisa McInerney uses the murder and the ripples it creates to open a door into the underworld of Cork—a world peopled by gangsters, whores, drug dealers and alcoholics. People on the make, trying to survive and make a go of it—or not. It’s a small world where everyone is linked in some way to everyone else, and there is no escape.
The history of Ireland permeates the pages, especially the grip of the Catholic Church. Maureen visits the now-abandoned Laundry, where unwed mothers used to be sent, and where she would have gone if she had been born a generation earlier. In spite of escaping the Laundry, she has been scarred by the fear of “the priests, the nuns and the neighbours”. Thinking that there is “nothing as cleansing as a fire”, she sets a country church alight, much to the horror of her son, who is beginning to regret bringing his mother back from London.
McInerney writes in short, punchy sentences that bring this world alive, and the characters practically leap off the page. They have depths that are revealed as you get to know them. Maureen is a wonderful creation—feisty and perceptive with a shrewd understanding of what the world can do to people. Ryan’s truculence hides a more sensitive side, a musician “whose fingers had the grace for concertos so long as there was no one there to hear them”. There are moments of lyricism in the midst of all the mayhem: “He was out of booze and in no shape to get more; he was logey from the heat and too caught up in the kaleidoscope of memories to want to leave the house. The children had scattered in the sunshine.”
This is McInerney’s first novel and won the Bailey’s women’s prize for fiction. I can see why. It is a rambunctious novel, full of black humour, that pulls no punches.