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Novel set in Belfast (“funny and poignant”)

10th October 2015

The Good Son by Paul McVeigh, novel set in Belfast in the 1980s.

Tripfiction is working together with #bookconnectors to promote books that enable both actual and armchair travellers to immerse themselves in a given location – Ireland (and Northern Ireland) this time – via a good read. #Bookconnectors  was created as a place on Facebook for Bloggers, authors and small publishers to share their news.

 

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The Good Son has been shortlisted for Not The Booker Prize 2015

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When you pick up the slim volume that constitutes McVeigh’s first novel and read the blurb on the back, you might be forgiven for putting it back down again. I was tempted to, I must admit. Surely, not another book about growing up in adversity, I thought. Well yes, it is about that; the narrator, Mickey Donnelly, gives us an account of the summer before starting at secondary school in the Ardoyne, one of the most turbulent estates in Belfast of the 1980’s. But McVeigh’s book is much more than that; for a start, the voice of the narrator is so captivating that I challenge any reader to leave the book unfinished.

Mickey Donnelly lives in troubled times, but has additional troubles of his own. He doesn’t fit in; he’s clever and sensitive and, as a result, has been branded “gay” by the tough kids who inhabit his confined world. He’s lonely, ostracised by the other boys and his only friend is his sister, Wee Maggie, of whom he is fiercely protective. He tries so hard to be a good son to his much adored Ma and dreams of being able to take her to America, away from the Troubles and away from his Da, whom he hates. Unfortunately, his only hope of ever achieving this dream is the grammar school, but the prohibitive cost of the uniform cruelly close the door on that escape route.

This is such a good read; it’s funny and poignant by turns but it’s also a chilling commentary on what living through those times in Belfast meant for some people. We are made to understand exactly how repeated exposure to brutality deadens feelings and this message is delivered with even more punch for coming through the voice of an eleven year old boy. McVeigh’s brilliant use of dialect has you chuckling throughout, but you never lose the sense of danger. From the beginning of the second chapter, when we are told that it is “Nine weeks til St. Gabriel’s”, the tough secondary modern school that Mickey dreads, you feel that you’re sitting on a ticking time bomb. At times, I found myself holding my breath as I read of Mickey’s frantic struggle to find a solution to his problems.

If you plan on visiting Belfast any time soon, then this would be a good book to read before you do. It will, if nothing else, make you aware of the past that lies behind the present sophisticated surface of that city. But, even if you’ve no intention of visiting, you shouldn’t miss this read. As Mrs. Donnelly might say, “If you’ve a lick of sense, read this wee book, right nigh.”

McVeigh will surely go on to write more great novels and to win awards for them but, personally, I’d like to read a sequel to this one. I don’t want to leave Mickey Donnelly there – I want to know what happens to him later.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

And over to Paul who has kindly agreed to answer our inquisitive questions:

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Author Paul McVeigh

TF: How did you find the inspiration for the young voice of Mickey Donnelly? (Sam Jordison, in his review of the book says: “…Mickey Donnelly is the real reason The Good Son is worth reading”)

PMcV: I was asked to write a short story and, not having written one before, I took a common piece of advice – ‘Write what you know’. I started writing a memory from my childhood. I did worry about having an ‘author’s voice’ and that prevented me from starting. It occurred to me to write it as myself, back then, as it was happening. What came out wasn’t quite me and the story not quite my memory. The more I write him, writing the novel this time, and edited over the years, he moved further away from being me and became his own boy with his own story.

TF: We wrote: “If you plan on visiting Belfast any time soon, then this would be a good book to read before you do. It will, if nothing else, make you aware of the past that lies behind the present sophisticated surface of that city”. You have clearly brought the difficult past of 80s Belfast to vibrant life. What were your personal experiences that you brought to your writing?

PMcV: I grew up during that time and the descriptions of the setting, Ardoyne, where I grew up, are as realistic as I could make them. I have seen some pretty terrible things but not many are in my novel. This isn’t my story but Mickey’s. I had to think about a lot about what to leave out. Especially in the early stages of writing, I wanted to show exactly what it was like for children in those times – working class children particularly. As the novel developed I edited out a lot of the ‘Troubles’ experiences I saw or was involved in. I was not writing a piece of non-fiction it was a novel and had to serve the character. I joke sometimes that The Good Son is the Disney version of the Troubles (in terms of the terror of those times) but I do think that by showing less you can bring people/readers along more. It stops them having trauma fatigue where the events stop having impact.

TF:  How do you feel about appearing in The Guardian Not the Booker Prize 2015 Longlist (“.. a hunt by readers of the Guardian books blog to find the year’s best book, which may – or may not – tally with the assessment of the Man Booker prize judges”)?

PMcV: (Actually I’ve been shortlisted for the prize – down to the last six). Appearing on the longlist was great news. I was blown away by getting through to the shortlist. It meant a lot because it was by public vote. That so people had read it and took the time to read it was a real thrill.

TF: What of the city now – any insider tips for visitors?

PMcV: If you like walking, head up to Cave Hill. There are great views over the city, some woodland trails and you can finish off in the Castle for lunch. If you like a bit of affordable luxury head to Apple Apartments for stunning views around the city and where the titanic was launched.

TF: What are you working on at the moment and will location play a strong part?

PMcV: At the moment I’m not writing. I’m thinking. I’m collecting. I’m digging and taking samples. Whether I’ll find a story with such an intense arena I can’t say but I’m sure the location will be important.

TF:  How did you first get into writing and what thoughts do you have for others wanting to make a career out of writing?

PMcV: Many, many years ago I started working in plays as a director. I moved into devising plays with actors based on ideas or songs or images. I began writing scripts for theatre and later comedy. Keep going! Keep plodding on. In my experience either you get better to the point that you meet the standard needed or the world finally catches up with your genius. 😉

TF:  Which books do you currently have on your TBR pile?

PMcV: My TBR pile is enormous. It scares the life out of me. I’m ashamed to tell you as I should have read them ages ago. Having returned from the Cork International Short Story Festival where they give out the Frank O’Connor Award I pulled out his collection ‘My Oedipus Complex & Other Stories’. I took it with me to Poland for a short story festival in Wroclaw. I’m loving it. What a wit and such a great voice.

Thank you so much to Paul for chatting to us. And you can follow Paul on Twitter and Facebook.

We have more top reads to ‘take’ you to Belfast, just click here.

And do come and connect with the Team at TripFiction via social media: TwitterFacebook and Pinterest and when we have some interesting photos we can sometimes be found over on Instagram too.

 

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