The discovery of a body at an abandoned military base in Northern Ireland uncovers an eerie hidden history
For a contemporary Northern Irish author, the subjects of buried bodies, military conflict and religious indoctrination are hard – and perhaps even improper – to avoid. Accepting this toxically proximate material, Eoin McNamee has written powerfully about the corpses, battles and sermons of the Troubles in novels including Resurrection Man (1994), The Blue Tango (2001) and The Ultras (2004).
Just as Anna Burns writes obliquely about Belfast unrest in her Man Booker prize-winning Milkman , McNamee, in his seventh novel, The Vogue, explores familiar Ulster matters – hidden graves, war and dangerous faith – but from a fascinatingly unfamiliar angle. The conflict here is the second world war, the religious sect an evangelical group called the Elective Brethren, and, though the book begins with the digging up of remains that can be dated to a few years after Bloody Sunday, paramilitaries are not implicated.
What turns out to be the body of a young woman has been unceremoniously interred at Pirnmill Aerodrome in a place the author spells Morne (rather than the expected Mourne), a fictionalised version of the vast abandoned former RAF base in County Down where British and US servicemen were billeted during the allied resistance to Hitler. Pirnmill is close to what is now a geriatric rest home, but, in ways vital to the story, has been a workhouse and an orphanage.
A time-jump structure switches between 2000, when the corpse is discovered, 1972, the time of the fatal event, and 1944-45, where the solution to the mystery lies. In the oldest narrative thread, scenes divide between Morne and Shepton Mallet in Somerset, where, in a military prison, a black US airman has been charged with capital offences.
The Vogue is the name both of a local cinema and of a popular dance in one of the featured eras. The jitterbug, though, seems more to have influenced the novel’s structure, requiring readers to keep careful track of the names of places and people. The characters by Eoin McNamee, Faber, £12.99 who can most safely be identified without plotspoiling are the threatened US serviceman, Private Gabriel Hooper; Lily, an old woman whose memories of the war are compromised by her mental condition; the Reverend Wesley Upritchard, chief cleric of the Brethren; and Kay, a troubled resident of a caravan park on the abandoned airfield.
McNamee has published thrillers under the alias John Creed, while the fiction written under his own name has turned on the violent deaths of Northern Irish men – or, in 2007’s 12:23, Princess Diana. His skills of concealment and misdirection are neatly employed in The Vogue to hold back until satisfyingly late in the novel what links the second world war, via the 70s, to the brink of the third millennium. Many previous writers have taken advantage of the fact that the same character can hide on the page under two names, but McNamee has found a particularly ingenious, and thematically relevant, twist.
Disparate times and locations also cohere through careful patterns of action and language. Various inquiries – court martial, military discharge hearing, murder investigation, postmortem, coroner’s inquest – punctuate the narrative. Letters, files and other evidence survive, but paper can be lost, burned or, if intended for the letter box, never sent.
Doubts about the wisdom of official oversight and the accuracy of historical hindsight are underlined by imagery of visual interruption: sediment blurring disturbed water, dust floating in beams of sunlight or projected film. Affectingly, the most reliable evidence turns out not to be the public record but the casual graffiti of life: messages carved on a tree or beneath a cinema seat.
McNamee has a distinctive prose tone, its signature the omission, for purposes of staccato rhythm, of verbs. “Forty-watt bulbs in dusty storerooms” and “The thaw underway” are both complete sentences. Fractured phrases are also Lily’s dialect, in her case because of a brain insult: “War die people” or: “Say you now.” The sections involving Private Hooper feature period speech, so that he is referred to as a “Negro” and worse, racism being one of the abuses of authority that are a recurrent concern of the novel.
The dominant theme, though, is the easy falsity of history, a note that will resonate in Northern Ireland, and far beyond. The closest the novel comes to recent headline Irish events is that the recovered remains under the airfield recall the revelation that up to 800 children and babies were found to have died at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, run by nuns, in County Galway. A mass grave was found next to the site of the former home. This scandal seems to underpin one of the Morne stories in The Vogue, but McNamee is more widely interested in hidden history, impressively addressing from a fresh perspective a country for which the question of where the bodies are buried is fundamental.
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