Mickey Donnelly is a 10-year-old boy living in the Ardoyne area of Belfast at the height of the Troubles. The Good Son spans a difficult summer where he dreads starting secondary school in the autumn. He’s justifiably terrified at the prospect of having to go to brutal St Gabriel’s school because his mother can’t afford to send him to the more civilised St Malachy’s Grammar School. Mickey’s a smart, sensitive child, the kind of boy who doesn’t fare well in a macho environment. Other kids call him gay because he’s more comfortable playing with girls and his only real friend is his little sister Wee Maggie.
In the absence of any decent male role models – Mickey’s dad is an abusive alcoholic who only returns to the family home whenever he needs money – he learns about life through film and TV. It also allows him an escape from the veritable war zone of his surroundings. He lives in his head and dreams of someday going to America to make his fortune like his heroes.
In some ways, The Good Son is a simple coming-of-age story. Mickey has to deal with regular problems like fitting in, making sense of the world and navigating his sexuality. But told against the extreme backdrop of British Army patrols and sectarian violence and the shadowy presence of the IRA, it’s a powder keg. It’s hard to review this book without using cliched descriptions such as ‘gritty’, ‘bleak’ and ‘unflinching’ but, while it is all of those things, it’s so much more nuanced than that. There are some parts that are horrible to read, such as when a local bully brings in adults to avenge her after Mickey says something impulsive to her, and when he strays into the wrong part of town and gets caught up in a bombing, and when he stumbles across a group of glue sniffers in a disused factory. But it’s also wildly funny and vibrant, with Mickey a likeable protagonist, gullible but surprisingly savvy when it counts, heartbreakingly vulnerable and equally heartbreakingly courageous.
I also loved the relationships within Mickey’s family, particularly his close connection with Wee Maggie and his tough but loving mother Mary. The relationships ring true in that they’re complex and constantly evolving.
Because I became so invested in Mickey, I feared for him as the story progressed. Characters usually have to contend with peril of some kind – but for Mickey, it seemed to lurk around every barricaded corner. Towards the end, I actually had to put the book aside for a few days, and then braced myself to read the final chapters with a sense of foreboding. It’s rare to read a book these days the ending of which you simply cannot predict, and this one achieved exactly that. I won’t spoil it for you, but I thought the ending was perfect.
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for some time and so was surprised to find it tougher going than I expected. This was because author Paul McVeigh is fearless in showing a world in all its unpleasant, gory detail [don’t know why I was anticipating something lighthearted in a book with such a turbulent setting – maybe it’s the carefree-looking kid on the cover]. As a result, it’s pretty uncomfortable to read in parts. Having said that, this is a wonderful, admirable book, tough and tender in equal measures. And it packs so much in that it stays in the mind long after reading. Plus, never have I felt more appreciative of my own sheltered upbringing at the far end of the same island around the same time.
If you’d like to find out more, there’s an interesting discussion here between McVeigh and fellow Belfast native Lucy Caldwell about the development and shaping of the book over a period of 10 years. A fascinating insight for anyone interested in novel writing.
And there’s a wonderful review here by author of The Glorious Heresies Lisa McInerney, who captures the essence of the book far better than I can.
#SomeBooksofSummer 3 of 7. Next up – The Green Road by Anne Enright