Close to Home: A Novel

  • By Michael Magee
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 288 pp.

Young adults in a broken West Belfast try to move past the Troubles.

Close to Home: A Novel

Wars last longer than history books claim. The pain and fear continue long after the shooting stops; even a generation later, people still suffer. The Good Friday Accords of 1998 may have ended the overt violence in Northern Ireland, but in his wonderful debut novel, Close to Home, Michael Magee shows us that the disorder and pain of the Troubles still affect individuals, families, and entire communities.

As the story opens, Sean Maguire has just knocked somebody out with one punch and is being questioned by the police. He claims self-defense, but witnesses at the crowded party describe a flat-out assault. Sean will eventually admit, if only to himself, that the other man did no more than insult Sean’s poverty, claiming no one from Sean’s neighborhood knows their father.

In fact, Sean does not know his father, who was chased out of Belfast by the IRA under suspicion of abusing Sean’s half-brother, Anthony. As a consequence of that abuse, Anthony is now an alcoholic who regularly abandons his family in favor of weeklong benders. Despite his own arrest and upcoming trial, Sean is the more stable and successful brother. A recent college graduate who has returned home with a degree but no prospects, he wonders why he went to college if there’s still no escape from West Belfast.

His neighborhood appears cut off from the world, a place of dissolution and despair. Sean spends his time with his childhood friends Ryan and Finty drinking and chasing drugs. He works odd jobs as a barback or barista, waiting to be evicted from the apartment he and Ryan are squatting in and frequently relying on shoplifting to feed himself. Sean has no real plans and so is constantly caught up in Ryan and Finty’s schemes to skim money from work, steal from local shops, or deal drugs.

The one bright spot in his life is Mairéad, an ex-girlfriend who also managed to graduate from college and now has a grim and difficult plan to make enough money to escape to Berlin, where friends said they’d help her find a job in the film industry. While the thought of losing Mairéad feels like cruel abandonment to Sean, the idea that one of them might escape the neighborhood shines like a beacon of hope. As they grow closer, the possibility of a rekindled romance is ever-present, yet Magee deftly creates more emotional than sexual chemistry — Sean and Mairéad’s feelings for each other are as complicated as their situation.

Sean’s path is increasingly dictated by the assault case that grows out of that opening punch. Despite slowly admitting his responsibility to himself, he refuses to take a plea and only narrowly avoids prison. The thread of class weaves through every aspect of the case — from the wealthy victim’s taunting to the judge’s declaration that Sean is nothing “more than a bully and a thug.”

Curiously, religion is barely mentioned here or elsewhere. Other than an aside about a priest arrested for cocaine possession, there is no reference to Catholicism or Protestantism anywhere in the novel. In this world, class has replaced religion as the locus of antagonism.

But the antagonism still reverberates. Sean’s mother gets together with an old friend to drink and allude to their involvement with the IRA; Finty’s father is a still-feared former IRA soldier; and Ryan’s father, who spent time in the notorious Long Kesh prison, can’t leave the house without fearing someone will try to kill him. Ryan seems to sum up everyone’s feelings when he complains that he isn’t angry for what his father did during the conflict but hates what the war had done to the man. “And for what?” he asks.

The only concrete outcome of the Troubles seems to be the fractured families it created. Sean’s mother withdraws from almost all responsibility for her son, and no one — not Sean, not Mairéad, not Ryan, not anybody — can turn to family for help. Anthony’s capacity as a father and husband is summed up by his wild drinking binges, while Finty’s father remains a figure of terror whose violence has outlived the war that nurtured it.

Magee has achieved something powerful here: opening a window into a world otherwise closed to most of us — not simply the physical world of West Belfast, but the emotional landscape of a community taking slow, fledgling steps toward healing. Sean matures in fits and starts as Mairéad introduces him to other students and he begins to get out of the neighborhood and into bookstores and coffeeshops that aren’t brimming with anger and alienation. He starts to trust that his love for Mairéad will survive her move to Berlin.

Ultimately, however, Magee offers no clear resolutions. Rather, through prose that illuminates Sean’s inner life without calling attention to itself, he creates a portrait both complex and subtle. In the end, Sean’s life is not much different than it was at the beginning, but we sense the changes the author has so artfully painted for us — the anger and despair have loosened their grip. Twenty-five years after the treaty was signed, peace is almost at hand.

John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various journals and anthologies, and his short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn long enough to be considered natives by anyone but his neighbors.

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