In 1969, bloody rioting in Belfast in Northern Ireland exploded into the decades-long Troubles. Michèle Forbes’ excellent first novel works in that material, but through the private lives of a Catholic family in Belfast. Katherine Fallon has carried the memory of a lost love with her through her marriage, as the Irish have carried the memories of past hatreds through their history, and that has shaped all the lives around her, her husband, her children. She meets the lost love, a wonderfully Irish tailor, when she is singing Carmen in an amateur production; he sews her costume and seduces her. Her outer self moves on, but her mind stays in this unreal, theater moment.
Forbes weaves these two selves together into a story that chimes with the history of Ireland. George Fallon, Katherine’s husband, is a Belfast fireman and is always being called away to put out fires; in a hair-raising scene, he and his children are trapped in his car in a hostile mob. The shop where the children go for sweets explodes in flames.
This book is not upbeat, but it well rewards the reader. The writing is precisely observed, understated, elegant, and the characters live off the page, not because they’re likeable but because they’re so intensely human. A fine first novel.