Friday, 4 July 2014

The Bastard Pleasure by Sean McGrady

Reviewer: Rebecca Johnson Bista, winner of WWJ’s inaugural First Page Competition and now writing a novel set in India. She blogs very erratically at: when she isn’t painting fences, watching Bollywood movies, Googling terrorists and pirates, or entertaining cats.

What we thought: Short, dark, mordantly funny, poetic and philosophical. Not an easy read but a rewarding one. The novel centres around a single event – a raid on a Belfast bakery by a sectarian organisation – and its aftermath, but explores the passage to self-knowledge and adulthood of its narrator, Seamus, through his relationships with family, colleagues, his faith and his work at the bakery.

Sean McGrady’s novel falls into the genre of “Belfast Noir” – intense, gritty, laconic, violent stories of the ‘Troubles’ of the 1970s and ‘80s, delivering gallows humour in a rasping Belfast accent. Yet it is also more than this. It’s a novel about words and ideas and identity. It’s an investigation of evil, a meditation on the effects of religion on society, and on the darkness of spirit that emerges from lives dominated by oppression and brutality. It is a story of fear and defiance, of the locked-tight repression of emotion in a violent city, of a will to freedom and power, and of raw survival instinct. What choices have to be made to survive – who does one have to be – to be victor not victim in the midst of conflict? And at what cost to the human soul? Why do some people choose lives of violence and what motivates their acts of calculated ruthlessness? How does language control and shape those identities?

The plot follows the thoughts and confessions of a young man who works in the bakery as a slave of the production line, and is seduced into an abusive relationship by an older colleague whom he eventually turns on and betrays. His first person narrative is a rationalisation of this bloody act. The impact is devastating.

McGrady’s language is magical, in contrast with the bleakness of setting and action. It is shot through with strands of philosophical dialectic, acerbic character assessment and salty dialogue. The darkness of the subject matter is pierced with diamond flashes of humour and the caustic music of Ulster speech. It’s impossible, even in your head, not to read it in a broad Belfast accent. It is also powerful and profound, turning and twisting different concepts, wrestling and bending them with metaphor, transforming them alchemically into something else.

“The father gave me what almost amounted to formal lectures in weaponry as we listened on still evenings to the gun battles raging around the city. His verbiage was delivered, like an artillery barrage of the trenches in World War One, pounding me with words and exploding spittle, until I was ready to offer my unconditional surrender on the grounds of hygiene.”

I was blown away by this flawed but dazzling novel. The first chapter is hard to get into but once the plot kicks into action with the virtuoso set-piece of the bakery scene I was transfixed by its brilliance. It is visceral, dark and captivating, sulphurously lyrical, perverse and triumphant, challenging, witty, brutal and unforgettable.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Spinoza, Nietzsche, film noir, metaphysics, Samuel Beckett, Glen Patterson, Elmore Leonard.

Avoid if you don’t like: bad language, violence, philosophy, graphic sexual depiction, Belfast accents, the dark side of human motivation, fire and brimstone or bakery goods.

Ideal accompaniments: Full Ulster fry, pint of Guinness, and chocolate ├ęclairs, consumed to a soundtrack of Rum Sodomy and the Lash by the Pogues, or Stiff Little Fingers’ Alternative Ulster.

Genre: Belfast noir, literary fiction.

[Sean McGrady is a former philosophy lecturer born and bred in the Belfast of the Troubles and now living Yorkshire.]

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