An adolescent boy develops a political ideology during Ireland’s tumultuous Troubles in Benacre’s (Shape, Shine and Shadow, 2016, etc.) latest short story collection.
After the opening tale, “God’s People,” a discussion between prospective British MI5 agents, narrator Neill McCormac dives into an account of his life in the very next story, “What’s in a Name?” Growing up near Newry, Ireland, in what he calls the “border heartland of the Provisional IRA,” he gets an early introduction to the violence of the Troubles. His mother believes she’s cursed, as each of her children has been born on the same day that a bomb or bullet devastated lives. In “Fence Posts & Milestones,” the 10-year-old McCormac’s rather brutal fight with some other boys is upstaged when word gets out that he uttered anti–IRA remarks at school. Puberty makes it mark, as well, as he recognizes his unmistakable attraction to Aunt Úna, his mom’s younger sister; in one of the book’s best stories, “Flat Shoes and High Hopes,” he and Úna have no choice but to discuss this infatuation when they’re alone at his brother’s wedding. In “...From Little Acorns Grow,” McCormac’s college dissertation on the procurement of Provisional Irish Republican Army weapons so impresses Capt. Eric Lawrence of the British Army’s HQ Northern Ireland that he offers him a job, only half-jokingly. This ultimately leads McCormac to MI5, where he chases Michael McCann, the suspected IRA terrorist and the protagonist of Benacre’s earlier work. The author’s depiction of the historical backdrop is profound, with McCormac moving from being a witness (perusing his mother’s scrapbook of bombings, for example) to being a part of the Security Service. At times, the historical events overshadow McCormac’s sometimes-conventional childhood; for example, he acknowledges that the loss of his virginity, which happened the same night as the 1996 IRA bombing of the London Docklands, was “fairly unremarkable.” That said, the book still makes a worthy counterpart to the first volume, which centers on McCann and his decidedly more savage youth. Like that collection, this one is truly a novel in disguise; an author’s note suggests reading the stories sequentially, and certain tales’ callbacks to earlier characters or incidents make this a necessity.
A likable, pragmatic protagonist comes of age in a comprehensively detailed, chaotic period in history.