Forsaken, by Gerard Lee, New Island Books, 165 pp, €13.99, ISBN 978-1848403611
When JJ, the narrator of Gerard Lee’s arresting first novel, is ten, his father disappears, turning up much later as a bag of bones lodged high in a pine tree, as forsaken as an unredeemed King Sweeney, as foreign a corpse as a Parsi’s.
He’s no prize, this da, but from the time he vanishes things go from bad to worse for JJ, and his mind and outlook are additionally rubbed raw with thoughts of what might have been had the family stayed together, though it never stood a chance on account of the father’s drinking and the mother’s mindless repetition of the rosary. Something has to be done for the forsaken ones, and officials of church and state gather to show they know best, aided by JJ’s grasping Uncle Patsy, a throwback of a gombeen man. Taking his cue from westerns viewed with the da, JJ barricades himself and his mother against the posse of would-be do-gooders. But of course this is as insufficient a defence as the mammy’s prayers. JJ is taken in by Uncle Patsy, and his mother is taken to hospital for “a rest”.
The downhill slide of JJ’s conditions and prospects accelerates. Uncle Patsy gives full rein to his capacity for sadistic exploitation. Mammy effectively disappears and has in any case gone off the rails. JJ is taken into care. Such freedom as he finds when he absconds is ultimately a greater trap than any institution, since he has can only return to the world of his earlier repression rather than turn it to productive advantage (the familiar option of such cases – heading to Dublin, or beyond – is no more than the flicker of an idea here). Back in the home country, JJ’s story proceeds by means of a sequence of increasingly grotesque episodes, some of them the youngster’s imaginings, others the result of actions he takes. Both have their origins in the “kill feeling” that seems to take the place of more familiar inklings of adolescence. But regardless of their origins, both types of episodes have equal impact. JJ’s vision of birds eviscerating his father’s tree-bound corpse has the same shock value as the fate he wishes on his professional care-givers, the car crash that he contrives and the graveside murder that he commits. Both events, and others of a similar stripe, are conveyed with the same eyes-wide-open attentiveness that comes when a child tells the story. What startles the reader fortifies JJ, though of course being startled is as enticing as being reassured, if not more so. The reader finds it difficult to look, and impossible not to.
Witnessing seems especially relevant to Forsaken in view of disappearances of various kinds – individual denial and concealment, institutional suppression and evasion, as well as literal going to ground and other sorts of physical invisibility. Things not seen – that is, not fully perceived or acknowledged or owned up to ‑ are so fundamental a part of this fictional world’s texture as to suggest a revised version of “the hidden Ireland”. But while that phrase was intended to connote a sense of roots, heritage and blood-and-soil palaver, here the hidden is a synonym for the damaged, the estranged – the forsaken. Now the mix of blood and soil produces psychological destruction instead of the preservation that a certain strain of cultural nationalism attributed to it. The destruction comes about through the various ways that JJ and his parents forsake one another, the adults helplessly and heedlessly, JJ in his attempts to restore the three of them to a state of peace and adequacy that never actually existed. The child’s efforts are the most desperate, neediest and most destructive of all.
Reinforcing the sense of a hidden Ireland, the landscape in which the action largely takes place is anonymous and featureless. There are no local place-names (Piggery Hill is the rule-proving exception), no named towns, roads, landmarks or other locales. There’s a River Weal, but other than that there’s little that’s distinctive enough to have a name of its own, just a lake, hedges and ditches, pieces of pasture, a couple of cottages, trees. It’s as though JJ and family have been forsaken from the start. The name of JJ’s first “children’s-home prison place” is “St. Somebody’s, a big Irish name none of the boys could pronounce”. His refuge when he runs away is a ruined castle, its history unknown; JJ invents a past for it that fits his own circumstances. And his other invocations of the past – the Famine, Easter 1916, and “when the English were here” – are just as sketchy, labels pasted on a void. About the only aspect of tradition that carries any weight with him are his enemies the fairies, and of course these too are tokens of a hidden Ireland.
If the past is an agent of forsakenness, the present is as well. JJ’s counsellors and therapists may mean well, but what the meaning amounts to is the preservation of the phenomenon of the institution rather than a comprehension of what the youngster knows in his bones and in his heart. But it’s only to be expected that professionals, institutions and related manifestations of the status quo are going to appear impossibly distant from those whose interests they are meant to serve: that’s long been a stand-by of Irish fiction. More broadly, though, the time of the action is hard to pin down. Cars and television are components of the present, but there’s also a mention of “balubas” and Green Shield Stamps, and priests still have a sizeable say. Time present seems as much a mash-up as times past. Both have the effect of leaving JJ high and dry, exposed, maddened, supporting himself in a burrow, eating crow – literally, although perhaps the American colloquialism for humiliation is also intended. In any case, what happens to JJ is as hard for him to swallow as it is for the reader. But that’s all he’s left with, a survival instinct. And lacking a productive social channel, that instinct becomes hard to distinguish from the death drive, leading JJ to destroy what he means to repair.
The addled ma, the hopeless da, an uncharitable Church, self-serving social agencies – a reader might be tempted to conclude that we’ve heard all this before. But if The Butcher Boy is what comes to mind, Forsaken should not be taken as just a rehash: its basically plain-spoken tone, uncultured contexts, asocial focus and its emphasis on the protagonist’s struggle for even the animal essentials of shelter, food, warmth are enough to see to that. And at the end of the day, Francie Brady is still rattling down the road, at least in his own mind, an exponent of words without end, and a provocative restatement of indomitable Irishry. But JJ, despite his best – that is, his most savage – efforts is, so to speak, all too domitable. All he has are his instincts, and though he lashes out with all the desperate energy that these provide, they are not enough. Survival alone is not enough. The scarifying means by which Forsaken reaches this conclusion makes it a notable contribution to the genre of populist gothic – better known, probably, as the trauma novel – that has been one of the most distinctive new forms of the Irish novel to gain critical and artistic prominence over the past twenty-five years or so. Indeed, it’s dark enough to make one wonder if it might not be the last word on broken-family, ruined-child tropes of betrayal and inadequacy. But any thought along such lines supposes that human rights, individual sovereignty, and other essential aspects of the person will emerge from the underground environment in which they continue to be trafficked and interfered with. This is the environment where JJ is hidden without hope of retrieval beyond the imaginative qualities such as those with which Gerard Lee impressively highlights his story.
George O’Brien is Professor of English at Georgetown University, Washington. His publications include the noted memoir The Village of Longing.