Un­real and yet fright­en­ingly real world of 1980s Derry

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - SARAH GIL­MARTIN


“Bobby Sands MP lay in the hos­pi­tal wing of his prison. He had re­ceived the Last Rites on 17 April, Good Fri­day.”

Derry, 1981, and a group of teenagers ap­proach­ing the end of sec­ondary school are try­ing to fig­ure out what to do with the rest of their lives. As they get drunk and get off with each other in the lo­cal dive, the Cave, the out­side world seems dis­tant and un­real. The strength of Geral­dine Quigley’s de­but Mu­sic Love Drugs War lies in the clash of the two worlds, the triv­ial de­ci­sions around make-up and New Ro­man­tic out­fits set against the stark vi­o­lence of sec­tar­ian war.

In early chap­ters Quigley cuts away from the nights out to give a jar­ring sense of what life in 1980s Derry is like. An ex-IRA mem­ber in his 20s, Kevin wan­ders home drunk from the Cave, think­ing about his girl­friend Liz: “Lost in his thoughts, [he] al­most col­lided with the heav­ily padded torso of a British soldier. Sud­denly, there was a ri­fle pushed against his chest.” The un­re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion is pressed upon the reader and Quigley does her best to show us how dif­fi­cult it was for teenagers and their par­ents to live nor­mal lives un­der con­stant scru­tiny and in fear of the next at­tack.

From Derry, Quigley was cho­sen for Pen­guin’s WriteNow men­tor­ing pro­gramme, which aims to nur­ture and pub­lish un­der­rep­re­sented writ­ers. The au­thor, who works full-time in a call cen­tre, ap­plied to WriteNow as a way “to get her voice – one which rep­re­sents work­ing class women – to be bet­ter heard”. The trou­bles of work­ing-class char­ac­ters cer­tainly come through in her novel, from the McLaugh­lin fam­ily, help­less to stop their son Paddy en­list­ing in the IRA, to the wider Catholic com­mu­nity’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity as British sol­diers po­lice the streets. Op­pres­sion and fear come from both sides, with fam­i­lies like the McLaugh­lins stuck in the mid­dle.

In a book that has far too many nar­ra­tors, sib­lings Paddy and Liz McLaugh­lin are cen­tral char­ac­ters, the for­mer a teenage hot­head who joins the IRA with his friend Christy fol­low­ing the death of an­other friend. Liz, mean­while, is a bright young woman, de­ter­mined to be the first in her fam­ily to get to col­lege. Her friend Orla is a vi­brant, nu­anced char­ac­ter, who loses her new boyfriend to the vi­o­lence, and then sadly dis­ap­pears for the rest of the ac­tion. With fur­ther nar­ra­tors in­clud­ing Kevin, the par­ents Jim and Bernie McLaugh­lin, Paddy’s friend Christy and the fre­quent and ar­bi­trary drift­ing into the per­spec­tive of side char­ac­ters – a gun trainer for the IRA, a British solider, a priest – the novel is heavy with the weight of too many voices and lacks dis­cern­ment as it switches be­tween them. It seems an is­sue of edit­ing more than with the writ­ing it­self, which has plenty to of­fer in terms of de­tail.

The youth vibe comes across well in the scenes in the Cave, the ri­val­ries, the hook-ups, the way other lo­cals are known: “He’s the man who found the mouse on the floor in here and ate it for a bet.” Liz gives a beau­ti­ful de­scrip­tion of the fam­ily home and by proxy, her mother’s hard work: “The air hung with the scent of the hot iron on cot­ton, the al­most in­dis­tinct scent that was as much a sen­sa­tion: hot metal, the slightly scorched cover of the iron­ing board, the lin­ger­ing essence of wash­ing pow­der en­hanced by steam, damp­en­ing the fab­ric.” The de­tails of join­ing the IRA come across as re­al­is­tic also, from the gun train­ing south of the Bor­der, to the fact that Paddy and Christy carry out or­ders with zero con­text.

But for all its com­mend­able de­tail, the book doesn’t co­here well over­all. There are too many char­ac­ters, too many bitty scenes, too much ac­tion and yet at the same time, the sense that we are not see­ing things play out enough, leav­ing an un­sat­is­fac­tory, sketch-like im­pres­sion to the nar­ra­tive. The au­thor can of­ten be heard in char­ac­ter de­scrip­tions and in the open­ing para­graphs of chap­ters. The mu­sic of the ti­tle seems like a to­ken ef­fort – it fails, for ex­am­ple, to cre­ate the sense of nos­tal­gia of the won­der­ful 1990s sound­track in the TV show Derry Girls – and the drug tak­ing in par­tic­u­lar stretches cred­i­bil­ity.

“An af­ter­noon that had started out with a few cans of beer quickly be­came a chem­istry les­son; an ideal chance to try some of Granny Bax­ter’s nerve tablets, per­haps one of the lower- strength tran­quil­lis­ers,” said no drug-tak­ing young­ster ever.

Where Quigley comes into her own is in the show­cas­ing of Derry it­self, the peo­ple, the di­alect, the un­real and yet fright­en­ingly real land­scape of the 1980s: “The bang on the door in the mid­dle of the night. The fear. They used to say, years be­fore, that a vol­un­teer had six months on av­er­age be­fore he was ei­ther in­side or dead. How much shorter were the odds now?”

Geral­dine Quigley: New Ro­man­tic out­fits set against the stark vi­o­lence of sec­tar­ian war

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