The Blood Miracles, by Lisa McInerney, John Murray, 304 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1444798890
In 2015 Lisa McInerney made her widely-acclaimed fiction debut with The Glorious Heresies, a story of Cork gangsters and post-bailout Ireland which won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliot Prize for first novels. But she was no debut writer: for the previous six years she had been running the successful Arse End of Ireland blog as “Sweary Lady”, her online persona hinting at the energy and invention she would soon bring to her fiction. Her second novel, The Blood Miracles, returns to the streets of Cork and the cast of The Glorious Heresies. Ryan Cusack, its fifteen-year-old drug dealer, is now pushing twenty-one and at a turning point. He has just come out of hospital confused, defeated and depressed. His burgeoning relationship with Karine D’Arcy was one of the focal points of The Glorious Heresies; now, after six years, it is threatening to come to an end. Just as she is losing faith in Ryan’s desire to break free from the Cork underworld, a bad deal draws its intricate net even more tightly around him.
This is a tale of two cities: of skinny-trousered baristas and scarf-wearing students on the one side, and boys like Ryan who trade chaotic and deprived homes for a young dealer’s swagger on the other. But The Blood Miracles shows again and again how these separate worlds depend on each other. Ryan’s dealing is
the business of fledging savages the world over: he facilitates the movement of illegal inebriants from his foolhardy class into the hands and mouths and nostrils of those who should know better. He feigns a swagger to hide the fact that he doesn’t breathe easy and doesn’t sleep well.
As the novel opens he is struggling just to survive. Recently recovered from an overdose, Ryan has been gifted a rebirth, of sorts, but new beginnings are not easy. There are generational binds and loyalties to trap him; he carries the weight of his parents’ history; and there is always the allure that Cork’s underworld has for “those who should know better”. The Blood Miracles is in some ways a familiar coming-of-age tale: its hero is lost and confused, unsure of who he might be.
Ryan might be a victim of circumstance – or perhaps he just wants to believe that he is. Raised by an alcoholic and abusive father, he has long ago been drawn into the orbit of the gangster Dan Kane. The suppressed menace in the relationship with his mentor has a familiar tang: Ryan is already used to violence and bullying from his father, Tony Cusack. And his closeness to Dan hints at Ryan’s potential: the young dealer has already risen quickly through the ranks. But he is uneasy and conflicted. McInerney deftly shows that confusion and disassociation in his drifting through much of the novel. It is not that Ryan does not make decisions, but he denies or defers them. Karine wants him to write down his feelings: he does so in bewildered letters to his lost mother. Is he “bad”? Is he beyond redemption?
Maybe I’m not mad, Maybe I’m not suicidal. Maybe I’m restless. I might be 1300 miles away but I have Neapolitan blood and Neapolitan blood is restless … I’m restless and reckless and this blood will kill me before it keeps me alive.
Badness is in the blood, he hints – the blood he inherited from his Italian mother. She had wanted to keep her sons away from Naples to escape its criminality and corruption. But ironically that Italian background makes Ryan even more useful to Dan Kane, who wants his help in setting up a new drug route through Naples. And so Ryan’s maternal inheritance is to be bartered to the Cork underworld, contaminated by it.
On the cusp of adulthood Ryan is selfish, delusional, lost, and still not sure (or still quite innocent) of what he is capable of doing. In The Glorious Heresies he was a boy with an unlikely talent: his mother had encouraged his gifts as a pianist, but now he hardly plays any more. Music is intimidating, mixed with emotion and loss. It might be a path to redemption, or it might be the path he has already left behind. It might also be a source of self-delusion: “music will save him yet”. He does remixes and hopes to DJ; he has a fantasy of himself as “an entrepreneur musician who smokes too much dope”. He can’t be a gangster, he argues with his lover: he can’t be accused of that. “‘I’m not able for it … I’m a musician.’ It sounds ridiculous. But it’s all Ryan can get past his teeth.”
But The Blood Miracles is not just a character study. Like The Glorious Heresies, where the need to dispose of a body draws a range of characters into its web, the plot centres on the aftermath of Dan Kane’s attempt to establish that new drug route. When the deal goes wrong, escalating tension raises questions of loyalty and betrayal. Ryan is quickly caught between the interests of Dan and his more established rival in the city, Jimmy Phelan.
McInerney does not ignore the dubious thrills of the gangster story – the temptation to glamourise or dramatise what is, in reality, simply brutal or vicious. In fact, The Blood Miracles addresses that temptation head-on. There are hints that Ryan has been an “enforcer”, but a narrative that is largely filtered through his viewpoint never admits exactly what kind of violence this entailed. The cruelty of others, on the other hand, is baldly painted. And as Ryan’s six-year romance with Karine D’Arcy slowly unravels, he is drawn into a relationship with a middle class girl who revels in all the “gory details” of his trade:
stories about rebellious users and gangsters cleaning guns in underground strip clubs. Would she mind if he detailed reality? It’s about moving around all day, scared shitless, talking shite and throwing shapes at those in the same boat but knowing it’s all chestnuts and mottos and platitudes, like you’re working off a script. It’s meaningless so you’re disassociated and with disassociation comes hangovers, a bad diet, a smoker’s cough. It’s a false and empty function and there’s no point to it, no comfort in it; you’re a boil on the arse of your own country. So you deflect reality with notions like brotherhood, loyalty, hierarchy. Stupid dick-clutching fantasies. Stories Natalie wants to hear.
And as far as Ryan stays with Natalie, in some sense those “dick-clutching fantasies” can continue, however much he derides them.
Natalie is a less convincing character, a graduate student who might pass a reverse Bechdel test – her only significance to the story being in relation to the men around her. Perhaps it is a consequence of the genre McInerney is writing in that The Blood Miracles is very largely a man’s story: the three female characters are divided in their roles between seductresses and saviours to Ryan Cusack. Women circulate around the edges of the story: they are mothers and mother-figures, girlfriends and wives, and women to cheat with. In that respect, some plot points seem to stretch credulity: Ryan, the son who has lost a mother, encounters an elderly fortune-teller who serves as a kind of surrogate mother, a woman who is estranged from her own son. Their meeting is strangely fortuitous and, as its significance unfolds, it seems a little contrived.
But these caveats aside, The Blood Miracles is a novel with energy and humour. McInerney’s language is rhythmic, and she writes with pace and drive. Tony Cusack is the kind of father who “knew how to put a dinner on but he’d drowned the knowing. He stuffed it into a bottle of Aldi whiskey and let it ferment.” Ryan’s disassociated state is neatly described: battered and bruised, and arguing with Karine outside a hospital A&E, he sees “Over her shoulders, the living dash down the rain-splashed paths in their scores. The hospital is a throbbing heart and he’s a cog loose in an artery, something mechanical, something cold, foreign and corruptive.” But this outsider also has the measure of his city; Ryan sees the damage in recession-hit Cork:
This city, like all cities, hates its natives. It would rather be in a constant state of replenishment than own up to what it has warped … the men who sleep on the street are alcoholics, the girls who stop you and ask for money are alcoholics; that’s Cork’s damage, Ryan thinks, he didn’t do that. People lose their jobs, people can’t pay their rent; he didn’t do that either. And still when his compatriots see the veneer of the city crack they peer through only to identify him as the culprit. He is too blatantly urban, his accent’s too strong, his gatch is too arrogant.
Which is he: the “cold, foreign and corruptive” cog in the heart, or the child warped by his city and its problems? Karine demands that Ryan take responsibility, make decisions, change his life. But the catalyst for change is not always (or not often) internal. Ryan is caught between fatalism and fantasy. He might be a musician yet. He might find a way through the chaos. There is always a chance for redemption. The Blood Miracles marries that conflict with a gripping story of rising tensions and tested loyalties.
Carol Taaffe is the author of Ireland Through the Looking-Glass (Cork, 2008), a study of Flann O’Brien.