The dis­cov­ery of a body at an aban­doned mil­i­tary base in North­ern Ire­land un­cov­ers an eerie hid­den his­tory

The Guardian - Review - - Label Fiction - Mark Law­son

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.

To buy The Vogue for £9.28 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

The Vogue

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