BITTER ORANGE by Desmond Hamill


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An episodic, often amateurish novel of the North Ireland troubles which, for all its flaws, occasionally provides riveting glimpses of real, raw tragedy. English journalist Hamill focuses on the beleaguered Malone family of Catholic Belfast, especially surly young Vincent--who joins the IRA, is ""kneecapped"" when he's wrongly branded an informer after a failed mission, and goes south to recover, stay out of trouble, and firm up his non-terrorist credo: ""I just can't kill like that."" He meets and loves beautiful Irish teacher Mairead down there, and she comes back with him to Belfast to enchant the Malones: old armchair Republican ""Granda""; long-suffering Ma (Da died after being beat up in a Troubles-related fight); quiet twin brother Bryan; sisters Sheelagh and Deirdre; little brother Jamie. But then Sheelagh and Mairead are caught in a terrorist bombing--Sheelagh a triple amputee, Mairead heavily scarred for life. And Vincent, convinced that the ""Prods"" planted the bomb (it actually was the Provos), goes on a lonely one-man bombing crusade against the Protestants (unlike the IRA, he couldn't care less about the British). Mairead, meanwhile, falls for gentle Bryan--who'll try to convince Ma, now deranged by the endless family horror, to move the whole family south (Deirdre is near-catatonic, Jamie is running messages for the IRA). But before that exodus can happen, there's an inappropriately thrillerish finale: the Provos will come to grab Vincent and take twin Bryan by mistake (not very plausible); and Vincent will die in a heroic rescue, leaving behind shattered bits of a family. This relentless, painful scenario should have made a harrowing, powerful novel. It hasn't--because Hamill doesn't know how to shape his material (extraneous subplots, undeveloped characters, confused focus) and because he lumbers events that speak eloquently for themselves with emotion-killing commentary: prosy, literal analyses (""there were to be more blows that would penetrate into their subconscious, causing psychological damage that would become apparent in the months ahead""); and debates between characters (especially two priests) on the rights and wrongs of the Troubles. Still--though this isn't half the book it could have been with the aid of a skillful editor--it has enough honest family scenes and enough intimations of genuine horror to trigger the core of response that most readers will bring to any well-meaning Troubles fiction.

Pub Date: Sept. 29th, 1980
Publisher: Morrow