Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

On the longlist for the Women’s Prizefor Fiction and rightly so, I would be surprised if this didn’t get onto the shortlist. The judges are looking for accessibility, originality and excellence and I can’t see where this book might fail any of those.

It is the story of a young teacher, Cushla, and her family set in Northern Ireland focusing mostly on a look back at the times of the Troubles during the 70s and a very bleak picture it paints of the constrictions and restrictions in the society at the time. Cushla meets and falls for an older man who is a barrister and a protestant and she is from a Catholic family, looked down on by most of the Northern Irish community. They get by with her teaching and her brother running the family pub but they are always walking a highwire – who drinks in the pub, who they can mix with, being seen with a ‘mixed’ family and the troubles they have with their neighbours, who they can meet and where and the role of the priests. The priests, as usual, do not come out well in this story, not for being a paedophile – although that is hinted at later on in the book – but for his ranting about sins and what happens to little children who do not follow the righteous path.

In the family that Cushla is helping is Thomas, a teenager who witnesses daily bullying and violence and who has to help his father who is given such a bad beating he was abandonned as dead. This makes Thomas feel impotent and he starts to mix with those who have more violent tendencies. And then he gets a fixation on Cushla and these two incidents come together in a big bang causing untold misery and a life in prison for himself. The story illustrates clearly the fact that violence begats violence.

So, how would this book be original? Well the story isn’t, even the telling isn’t. It’s told in third person and is a ‘straight’ telling and by that I mean lots of detail about the time and the events but told in an undramatic way. It is an emotional rollercoaster but not in the telling, only in the events and the impact on the characters and that is where the strength and originality of this book lie. The writing is sublime and details the many thousands of micro and macro-aggresions faced by Cushla and her family, conjuring up the world in which it is set, a Catholic family in a majorly Protestant town, so that I am there with them.

Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now.


The first section of the book is entitled ‘The Irish for No’ – I didn’t know that there was no one word for ‘no’ – what you use depends on the circumstances but here Cushlar is unable to say no to the British soldiers who grope her, the priest who tells horrific stories to the children, her mother who drinks after the death of her husband, to Davy from a ‘mixed’ family who doesn’t wear a coat and finally, Michael Agnew the man she has an affair with against all the conventions of the society at that time. Following on from ‘The Irish for No’ we have ‘Duil’ which means desire, ‘Chiaroscuro” meaning light and dark and ‘When I move to the Sky’ which I take to be freedom that might occur in death but also might be in getting away from the place, might be decades later when peace has been declared and might mean happiness in a close family and safe mundaneness.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this will be on the shortlist in two days time!

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