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Everything in this Country Must

By Colum McCann

Colum McCann’s first book since his highly acclaimed novel This Side of Brightness, which is at the time of writing a strong contender for the IMPAC Award, comprises of one haunting novella and two thematically linked short stories. In the title story, a group of young soldiers help a Catholic farmer and his young daughter free their horse from a stream in flood, unable to understand that their help will never be anything but an insult, since a British army truck had killed the wife and son of the house years before. In the second, ‘Wood’, which has appeared in The New Yorker, a ten-year-old boy from a Presbyterian family is asked by his mother to help make poles for the marching season for the local Orange Lodge, which goes against the wishes of his ailing, pacifist father. ‘Hunger Strike’, the novella, concerns a thirteen-year-old boy and his mother who flee to rural Galway from Derry as the boy’s uncle deteriorates while on protest for political status in the H blocks.

Each of the stories use the device of a naive narrator, which McCann employed to good effect in his contribution to the Shenanigans anthology, ‘As if there were Trees’. The disparity between the narrative voice’s personal experience and recounting of events, and the wider societal implications of which it remains mostly unaware, provides a fruitful source of interplay, and packs a powerful emotional punch for the reader. As a third person narrative, the novella works its magic by a slightly different procedure, although we are still given a young central character struggling to come to terms with tragic circumstances, at the same time as simply trying to grow up.

The subject of the euphemistically termed ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland is, of course, a literary as well as a political hot cake. Many writers have grappled with the situation in their work, not always one suspects from the highest of motives, and often with results of dubious quality. Sometimes they do so because they feel they have to, rather than because they want to. Yet it is impossible to question the bona fides of Colum McCann since, although he is a Southerner, at no time does one feel his choosing to deal with the problem is in any way exploitative. He does not begin with abstract concepts, but with personal situations. Everyday lives are impacted upon by political events of which they are only dimly aware. He eschews sectarian sympathies, preferring to concentrate on the human element in the worlds he creates. His stories never succumb to ideology. As in his earlier work, like the Japanese man in ‘A Basketful of Wallpaper’, who may or may not be a survivor of Hiroshima living in rural Ireland, displacement is a favourite theme, and Kevin in ‘Hunger Strike’ finds a parallel with the elderly Lithuanian holocaust survivors who befriend him. Yet the stories and novella don’t have a political purpose, they are almost three memories, three moments in time that changed the course of lives from innocence to the greyness and moral ambiguity of ordinary life.

Everything in this Country Must matches the previous high standards McCann has set himself, and extends the range of one of Ireland’s most lyrical and insightful writers. Seamus Deane has already opined that ‘The political turmoil of Northern Ireland finds here an answering, subtly respondent voice - wonderfully skilled and deeply felt’, and one cannot say fairer than that.

First published in The World of Hibernia

 

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