This book was apparently shortlisted for the Man Booker prize but to call it a book is slightly misleading for it is rather short. The sheer length or lack of length of the work is misleading because despite its shortness it is a heavy, morality tale that focuses on the Trouble and the conflicts that occurred not so much between Catholic and Protestant but between families as each member and the friends try to find a place to stay in the shifting morass.
The Open Road Media release of the book (formatted eBook) is especially apt considering the recent events concerning the Boston University tapes of IRA troubles and the investigation into the murder of a mother, whose children still live near those who killed her mother. It is impossible not to think of that story when reading this work. It is important that the reader doesn’t lose sight of that.
Joe is a student of unknown age. He has to be close to thirteen at the youngest and fifteen at the oldest. He lives with his mother and father. The family situation is strained because Joe’s mother works, the only source of income for the family. Joe’s father is sick, or at least claims he is, and lives only for his glory days in the cause, though Joe’s mother has a slightly different take on this. Joe is his mother’s child, her golden boy, who is going to do well in school, and unspoken as it is, get out and live a good life.
Joe has a talent for poetry and no real talent for maths or more rigid schoolwork, and it is this lack of interest that causes him to stay late at school and on his way home meet Kathleen. Kathleen is older and burns brighter than Joe. Unlike his house which is beset by the darkness of the Troubles, they seem to roll off Kathleen’s back like water. If Joe’s mother represents passive disinterest and dislike, the mother losing everything and only seeing the cost, while his father (and eventually his brother) represents active battle, Kathleen represents peace. She isn’t a hippie, though she is far freer than anyone else Joe has met. She just is and she accepts me.
It is a strange relationship to have at the heart of the book. Perhaps it says more about my American view that what the initial stumbling block for me was the age difference. She might not be Joe’s teacher, but she is a teacher at a girl’s. There is a vague whiff of inappropriate behavior to me, that is quickly dispel because Kathleen is looking for a kindred spirit to be friends with, and Joe is such a spirit. For others, for those who lived though the troubles, the stumbling book might be the friendship between the Protestant Kathleen and the Catholic Joe, though Kathleen’s Protestantism is something that she seems to wear as lightly as Joe wears his Catholicism.
While Kathleen’s interest in Joe may, at most, be that of an older sister for a younger brother, Joe’s interest in Kathleen is accurately and painfully reminder in such a way that the reader is more fully aware of the depth of emotion than Joe is. Joe wonders about his actions, his jealous and his dislike of his older brother that comes from something other than Joe being forced to step up when, quite frankly, he should be free to be a teen. When he commits a wrong, it is a wrong that any teen, any young person regardless of gender would make. It is action borne out of jealous and hate and one that is seen every day, everywhere. However, because this is Ireland during the Troubles, well, the action has harsher effects that Joe thought it would.
The book works because of the dialogue. By conveying must of the action though talk, Johnson is able to transport the reader to the neighbor, to that section of Northern Ireland in a far better way than simply describing place and time. The reader becomes another member of the area, less obvious and more secretive, but more aware than Joe simply because of age and experience.