Louise Kennedy, whose 2021 collection of short stories, "The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac," has won the John McGahern Prize for a debut book of Irish fiction, now gives us "Trespasses," her first novel. Set in and around Belfast in 1975, in the midst of the Troubles, it follows the course of a passionate affair between Cushla Lavery, a 24-year-old Catholic primary school teacher, and Michael Agnew, a married Protestant barrister in his 50s.
Running alongside that entanglement — and joining it in tragedy toward the end — is Cushla's unlucky effort to help and protect one of her students, 7-year-old Davy. The boy is bullied at school and lives a persecuted existence with his brother, sister, Protestant mother and Catholic father in a hardline Protestant council-house development.
Cushla lives with her widowed, alcoholic mother and regularly helps out in the family's pub. It is there that she meets Michael, a man infamous for taking on the defense of young Catholic men accused of crimes against the state, including murder. Michael asks Cushla to tutor him and a few of his well-heeled, liberal-minded Protestant friends who meet weekly to learn the Irish language — or, as one of Cushla's friends would have it, playing "at being Irish once a week."
Kennedy describes their upper-middle-class bohemian way of life in perfect detail, the delicious, casually presented meals, the vintage doodads that ornament the kitchen, the polite, but condescending manner of most of them toward Cushla.
If the world of Michael and his friends is distant from hers, it is unimaginably so from young Davy's. The family's Protestant neighbors constantly vandalize their house and yard; his father has been badly beaten and left for dead; and his older brother, a gifted student, leaves school, infected by nihilistic hopelessness and sectarian hatred. This is the reality of the Troubles, of beatings, revenge killings, executions, bombed out buildings, barricaded streets, aggressively hostile soldiers in armored vehicles, and wasted lives. That, too, Kennedy conjures in all its pervasive horror and fear.
This is a deeply evocative novel in the particularity of social description and ambience, in its atmosphere of menace, and in the urgency of the emotions portrayed — sexual passion, guilt, shame, fear, hatred and compassion. Kennedy is masterly in conveying the nature of Cushla's predicament: Her efforts to help Davy's family backfire; social workers show up threatening to take the children from their mother — as if she were the problem and not the viciousness of the neighborhood.
Consumed with illicit desire, she puts Michael's wife out of her mind to stave off guilt, but when she sees the two of them together she is shocked and humiliated. As events culminate in tragedy, Cushla is appalled, feeling responsible for the calamities her "trespasses" may well have set in train.
This is a moving, hard-hitting book grounded in the basic fact of Northern Ireland's Troubles: "It's not about what you do here. ... It's about what you are."
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
By: Louise Kennedy.
Publisher: Riverhead, 304 pages, $27.