At the beginning of the year I signed up to the Goodreads reading challenge – basically aiming to read a certain number of books throughout 2015. I signed up less for the challenge and more to get an idea of how many books I actually do get through each year now. I figured ‘at least one a week, easy’, and I was sort of right, but only when the freelancing isn’t kicked into high gear, and when I’m between writings. At the moment the freelancing is in high gear and I’m not between writings and I’m actually feeling guilty for writing this instead of working on something else. When I do settle down to relax of an evening, I gawp at the TV. Goodreads tells me that I’m behind on my challenge and I really don’t like it.
On the upside, though, this sort of not-really-enforced reading break means that I’ve had plenty of time to let the last book I finished percolate for a while, instead of me rushing headlong into the next tale. And that’s been nice, because Mickey – the young protagonist in Paul McVeigh’s fantastic first novel The Good Son – is the kind of character you want to keep around for a while.
Yep, welcome to another rare installment of Books I Bloody Love.
Full disclaimer: like most of the writing community in London and around the country, I know Paul. He’s a tireless supporter of writers everywhere, works hard (he’s Word Factory deputy, LSSF director and runs this invaluable blog). In person he’s unflaggingly enthusiastic and charming. I ordered The Good Son (published by Salt) in part because of I wanted to support his work; in part because I’ve heard/read Paul’s short stories and really enjoyed them.
But here’s a not-very-secret secret – the reason the bulk of the ratings I give on Goodreads are high is because if I’m not enjoying a book, I just won’t finish it and I won’t bother listing it. There’s a lot of writing out there, and I don’t see any reason to force myself to spend time ploughing through something that’s just not clicking with me (note: a difficult read doesn’t also mean an unenjoyable read), and I’m also not willing to harpoon someone’s work online just because it wasn’t for me. So, me buying The Good Son didn’t mean I was ever going to finish reading it. If I hadn’t enjoyed it I would have let it slip quietly through the cracks and stayed out of the conversation.
That turned out not to be the case, though. If I’d have picked The Good Son up off a shelf and opened it, I’d have bought it based on the first paragraph. It had me from the get-go. I got a bit arsey when I had to interrupt reading to do grown up things.
The blurb is: Mickey Donnelly is smart, which isn’t a good thing in his part of town. Despite having a dog called Killer and being in love with the girl next door, everyone calls him ‘gay’. It doesn’t help that his best friend is his little sister, Wee Maggie, and that everyone knows he loves his Ma more than anything in the world. He doesn’t think much of his older brother Paddy and really doesn’t like his Da. He dreams of going to America, taking Wee Maggie and Ma with him, to get them away from Belfast and Da. Mickey realises it’s all down to him. He has to protect Ma from herself. And sometimes, you have to be a bad boy to be a good son.
Mickey is a film-loving misfit, a sweet, selfish, naive but oh so definitely growing boy on the brink of going to secondary school where he’s going to get clobbered. The story is told from his perspective, with frankness, confusion and honesty. Mickey says what he sees and feels, but he doesn’t always know what it is he’s looking at. He and his family live in Ardoyne at the height of The Troubles – no man’s land, soldiers, raids, secrets. They’re a scary fact of life for him; such a fact that he skips over them as part of the backdrop, not fully understanding – or rather, willing away – the seriousness of his world while he dreams of escape and tries to negotiate his way around family, girls and boys. And I don’t want to say anymore because if I start relaying bits of the story it’ll unravel. You should just read it.
Children’s lives aren’t simple. The rivalries and politics and tacit understandings of growing up are as bad or worse than those same things in the adult world. But just how difficult it was can be easily forgotten as adults, and funny to look back on – when, at the time, the world was ending. Paul’s writing dances along a fine and perfect line of bringing all of that childhood confusion and ruthlessness to life in Mickey, but relaying it with the humour that makes it bearable and entertaining, with the added weight that Mickey’s world is one in which death and violence aren’t just abstract ideas.
When I think about what I love about this book, I keep coming back to Mickey’s voice. All the character’s voices. I found the written accent pulled me straight to Ardoyne and held me there. Growing up on the west coast of the IOM in the 90s, we had better access to UTV than ITV, so there’s a certain amount of Northern Irish pop culture that’s seeped into my memory. Party political broadcasts, Daniel O’Donnell. On occasion the Fairhill Shopping Centre ad still pops into my head (‘It’s a big shopping centre in Ballymena-hi’). Been years, really, though, since I heard any sort of strong Ulster accent for any length of time, but while I was reading this book it flowed steadily through my head. Not once did it flatten and not once did the way it was written grate on me. That’s a skill and a half.
The Good Son reminded me a bit of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha: at its heart, it’s the tale of a child being dragged unwillingly towards the responsibilities of adulthood. It’s got that clear and confused view of the world coloured by all the awkwardness and difficulties of being a kid, and, yes, it’s Irish to the hilt. But The Good Son is far more vivid, far more brutal and really, really funny. If you don’t laugh and cry and blush when you read this (because you should read it, you must) – if you don’t want to just give Mickey a bit of a hug and a bit of shake – well, I pity you, for you must’ve lost your heart and humour.