So, on with the story, and I should warn readers now that there may be plot and device spoilers to follow. In an attempt to be fair, honest and open** I must say that, at first I didn't enjoy this novel. Tellingly, strikingly, it begins with the birth of Shauna and Jay's oxygen-starved baby Bonnie, and for a man eating a cheese and tomato sandwich (on home-made saffron-, turmeric- and paprika-infused wholemeal bread with just a hint of nutmeg, and loaded with habañero Tabasco sauce), who has seen the miracle and trauma of birth first-hand, it almost put me off my lunch. Almost. Further niggles niggled with the confusion of narrators, the chapters of early 'letters' from Jay to his Mammy, irksomely referred to as The Mammy of Jay in oblique reference to a later revelation of import, the somewhat tacked-on involvement of grossly negligent psychoanalyst Dr Ghert, and the personal (for me) issue with the seemingly grotesque overuse of colloquialism and repetition of Gaelic phrases and idiom. I learned in critical theory seminars that form and content are inexorably linked, so I was set-up to dislike strongly whatever flowed from what I deemed an inauspicious beginning.
However***, there are many pros to balance these, frankly subjective cons. Whilst I never once guffawed, chuckled or tittered out loud, there were moments that made the corners of my mouth twitch upwards, others–notably pretty much any chapter where Jay is with his daughter–where I was genuinely moved by the honesty and empathetic depth of feeling, of love, for his child, and still others where the shock of everyday horror–miscarriages, abortions, madness, domestic violence, self-harm–served up verisimilitude by the bucket-load, making what could have been a daft, parochial, village-mouse-in-the-city tale of naivety feel solid, real, depressingly genuine and all the more impressive. Jay's bathetic life in London, filled early on with promise and a bright future in television, a new love, family and success, quickly degenerates, like the bright future afforded all by the vision of New Labour and the thrill of a new millennium, into indulgence, cocaine, narcissism, and stupidity, and through it all, keeping it feeling a little like an episode of Father Ted, is the vaguely threatening presence of the Irish Catholic Church, willing Jay to accept their proffered role as envoy of a millennial spiritual fulfilment to be found only by visiting and purchasing souvenirs of the Catholic shrine at Knock. Cue kicking the bishop up the arse.
This is a well-scripted, thoughtful and impactful novel, suggesting deep themes to explore and holding up for scrutiny the folly of man, of the collective hysteria of seeing signs in arbitrary numerical systems, and of the Nathan Barley-type media typical of the end of the millennium. It's also a deeply human novel, despite its attempts at bare-arsed humour and occasional overuse of stereotype, and moving in strange and uncomfortable ways. Having not read The Fields, I'm in not position to judge the progression of Maher as an author, but on this evidence, I suspect he's just starting on an impressive career.
*I suspect the neighbours, of whom no more later, of accepting a mis-delivered parcel and keeping it for themselves, damned filthy beasts. That's the last time I tell the take-out delivery guy they're the door around the corner, especially when they pay up front with a card...
**Thank you but no, I'm not drunk, just ill.
***Gah! Feedback sandwich - will I never learn?