Róisín Burns has changed in the last decade or so. Now Sheen, she has made a new life of sorts in New York, far away from her Belfast roots. But she is still haunted by events that led to her exile on the other side of the world. And as she sees the man who changed her life irrevocably rise up and seem likely to win office, Sheen feels the need to warn the world about Brian Lonergan, and hopefully find peace with herself in the process.
This is a tale of a cat and a mouse, though those who think they are doing the chasing may actually be the chased. Everything becomes turned on it’s head. The reader knows more than Sheen does about her immediate situation. We are slowly led through events that bring Sheen to Lamb Island. How she will confront Lonergan and what will happen to her are what drives the story along.
None of the characters are particularly likeable. Boyle is decidedly strange, his actions motivated by reasons only he may know. Lonergan is manipulative, vicious and conniving, covered by a gossamer of respectability he’s cultivated over the years. Even Sheen has moments where her machinations are seen as self preservation and absolution rather than being driven by more unselfish needs. The situation she finds herself in is hopefully one that many of us would never find ourselves. I therefore tried to remind myself that what I would have expected her to do, and what she did are not necessarily the same thing.
The writing is poetic, sparse in places and effecting. The scenes in Belfast during the troubles are the most hard hitting. Most of us of a certain age have memories of the violence that occurred before the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement. The realisation by Róisín that the violence is not normal, that it is not usual to have soldiers with rifles driving down the street, to have bombed pubs and smashed windows is a revelation to her and to the reader. The reader is shown that the violence has become a way of life, to such an extent that it is almost not seen. The setting of Lamb Island aids this. The remoteness of the island, the inhabitants and their ways, all add to the sense of distance, of being on the outskirts of humanity in a way, so that extreme action seems normal, and irrational thought seems rational.
I had places in the novel where I struggled to get on with the story, but I preserved and am glad I did. I wanted Sheen to both forget about her past and return to New York, but to also face her past, and address the consequences of it.
This was an interesting debut novel from Annemarie Neary and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.