Sunday, 22 June 2008

South of the Border by James Ryan


AUTUMN 1942, a young teacher on his first posting in the midlands, and his principal is gobsmacked by his brilliant Irish.
Can you translate a radio programme in Irish, the principal asks the teacher, surprised to find a Dubliner so fluent. I’m not from Dublin, the boy explains, I’m from Balbriggan.
But when he arrives at the house he’s directed to, he’s sent to a shed with a radio aerial twining through the trees, where a man crouches to hear a broadcast from Germany. In Irish.
He furiously denies stories of a Tan massacre in Balbriggan – I’m from there, I’d know – and later discovers that this was concealed from him at home, to keep him apolitical.
The teacher is furious at being dragged into politics, but his fury is muted by his passion for a mysterious girl.
Mysterious because she might be Protestant, an important distinction then.
This should be a brilliant novel. The writing is delicate, plain, absolutely beautiful.
But the plot gets lost in winding stories that don’t have any real thematic thread to hold them together.
Yet that writing – years later, at the funeral of Dixie Coll, the brother of the mystery woman, he sees her again. Beside her are her two aunts, now old women.
One has cropped white hair, but a marquisette hairband, “a tiara of sorts”, and two coats, one bedecked with several heavy costume brooches.
The other “was in full mourning garb, black hat, scarf and coat, all sabotaged by the gold-and-violet sequinned evening bag she was clutching”.
It’s moments like this that make you catch your breath.
The central story – a Luftwaffe pilot shot down, sheltered, betrayed, dying – gets a little lost in the middle of the tentative love story.
A very interesting novel about neutrality and revolution and the mutable nature of politics.

No comments: