“The Troubles” of Northern Ireland haunt the weeks around Christmas 1979 for a prison guard and the mother of a prisoner.
Dean, whose Becoming Strangers (Jan. 2006) was on various prize lists, short and long, gives us John Dunn, an Englishman starting a new job in the Northern Ireland prisons after 20 years in the British Army, and Kathleen Moran, mother of four, one of whom is in Dunn’s prison. The two live on opposite sides of a city that was, it must be remembered, as viciously torn as Beirut not that long ago. Dunn is a loner, a near-orphan who took the army as his family and his path as well as his livelihood, serving in various hot spots during his career. His time in Northern Ireland in the early days of the Troubles taught him to love the place, and his attachment to Angela, the woman with whom he now lives, brought him back to stay. Kathleen Moran has never been off the island. Married young to a windy braggart who is now, predictably, a drunk working in the local pub, Kathleen smokes through her chaotic days, frantic with fear for her oldest child, Sean, an IRA prisoner, and edgy with lust for Brendan Coogan, the handsome spokesman for the Republican cause. Sean Moran and his fellow prisoners have for three years protested their criminal status by eschewing prison uniforms. Naked in their freezing cells, they defecate on the floor and write their politics on the walls using bits of their mattresses as paintbrushes. And as they wait for the Brits to recognize their political status, they order the murder of their guards. This grim story is told with sharp wit and sharper love. Readers who manage to leave Dean’s worlds of East and West Belfast without a bitter sympathy for both sides of the grinding Ulster conflict are in dire need of heart transplants.
Not a wasted moment in this terrifying and terribly funny book.