Based on non-statistical and highly unregulated research, I think ‘The Glorious Heresies’ is the Bailey’s shortlister that I have spotted most often on the commuter routes through London. Whenever I see someone reading on the tube I always try to catch sight of the book title, and whenever it’s a book I like, I get a little warm glow to make the trauma of the journey that bit more bearable. Suffice to say, a view of that eye-catching orange cover has cheered me up on quite a few crowded tube rides during the past few weeks.
Personally, I did not read ‘The Glorious Heresies’ on the tube at all. I would have done, but I started it on Friday evening, and then got so caught up with the story that the decision to take it with me to work on Monday never really arose. As my blogging schedule will attest, I do tend to race through books as a matter of course, but in this case the speed was down to the writing. The narrative jumps from character to character, from sub-plot to sub-plot with such verve and conviction I was relentlessly pulled along, happy to be able to keep up with McInerney’s confident pace.
This sense of speed is important. Firstly, because it makes sense of the characters’ choices. The truth is that we rarely feel in control of our lives, and hardly ever actually get a chance to stop, pause, and then sensibly consider our options. For the criminals, drug addicts and disenfranchised characters of ‘The Glorious Heresies,’ life is not a measured journey through agreed milestones. Plans get hijacked and competing forces prevent anyone from having full control over their actions. Take the murder at the start of the novel. When Maureen brains an intruder with a ‘Holy Stone,’ events swiftly spiral out of control, to the despair of her gang-leader son. I want to point out that life is never held to be cheap by the novel (though it may be by the characters). Nevertheless, the irreverence at the heart of the event, and the flippant, fast-paced descriptions that surround the killing, initially overshadow the pathos:
‘”Belted him,” she said. “With the Holy Stone. I wasn’t giving up the upper hand on the off-chance has was Santy Claus.”
“What Holy Stone?”
She gestured towards the sink.
For every Renaissance masterpiece there were a million geegaws cobbled together from the scrapheap, and this was awful even by that standard. A flat rock, about a fistful, painted gold and mounted on polished wood, with a picture of the Virgin Mary holding Chubby Toddler Jesus printed on one side in bright Celtic colours, and the bloody essences of the dead man on the kitchen floor smeared and knotted on top.
Throughout the colourful novel, certain key themes swirl, nudging their way to the surface before becoming temporarily submerged. Post-Celtic Tiger Irish identity and nationality, bloody violence and complex religion are all crucial to understanding every madcap character and action. This is because aligned with the humour is a deep and sensitive understanding of what makes up a person, a city and a nation. Take the cheerfully subverted treatment of religion in the passage quoted above. The fact that Maureen and Jimmy don’t have a typically respectful mother/son relationship is significantly and traditionally Irish. Maureen never raised Jimmy; narrowly escaping incarceration in a Magdalena Laundry, she was shunted off to England as soon as she gave birth, leaving Jimmy to the care of her parents. The harrowing facade of one such laundry haunts her wanderings around Cork, and her ambivalence towards the church is easily tipped into violent hatred. On the other hand, she is a woman who collects tacky religious souvenirs – and reaches for them in her hour of need. Things aren’t as simple or glib as the smart-talking dialogue might suggest.
Maureen’s story is one of many interweaving strands that make up the book. I could write paragraphs on the wonderfully sensitive presentation of Ryan, a young drug dealer, Tony, his alcoholic father or the drug-addled Georgie. Every character could fit neatly into a witty, flashy crime caper; the power of ‘The Glorious Heresies’ is that, through McInerney’s deft writing, each transcends their roles as bit-players in a bigger story to also emerge as individual heroes in their own right. As we’re told at the start:
‘Cork City isn’t going to notice the first brave steps of a resolute little man. The city runs on the macro: traffic jams, All-Ireland finals, drug busts, general elections. Shit to complain about: the economy, the Dáil, whatever shaving of Ireland’s integrity they were auctioning off to mainland Europe this week.
But Monday lunchtime was the whole world to one new man, and probably a thousand more besides, people who spend those couple of hours getting promotions or pregnancy tests or keys to their brand-new second-hand cars. There were people dying, too. That’s the way of the city.’
I really recommend ‘The Glorious Heresies.’ One short review is not enough to do justice to the intoxicatingly complex plot, nor to the sensitive humanity of the characters. I just hope it’s enough to start to present the dazzling exuberance of the novel, and maybe show why it’s such a winner for commuters all over London.
I received my copy of ‘The Glorious Heresies’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.