Trespasses, by Louise Kennedy, Bloomsbury Circus, 320 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1526623324
Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses features an epigraph from Belfast poet Ciaran Carson’s The Irish for No (1987), whose title also names the first section of her novel. There is, of course, no direct translation for the word “no” in the Irish language. Kennedy excerpts poetic lines that consider the conflicting cultural codes of the troubled North, where “things remain unresolved” and they “may be black or white”. So much depends on perspective. Earlier in Carson’s poem the speaker watches through an open window “what looked like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet”, except the couple is arguing: “‘It’s got nothing’, she was snarling, ‘nothing / to do with politics … That goes for you too!’” Carson’s glimpsed image recurs within Kennedy’s portrait of star-crossed lovers whose relationship is framed by the Troubles. Cushla Lavery is a twenty-four-year-old Catholic schoolteacher and Michael Agnew is a middle-aged, married, Protestant barrister. The central question of the novel is: does their love story have nothing to do with politics, or everything?
The “love-across-the-divide” narrative is a familiar Troubles trope; however, Kennedy elevates the storyline beyond this paradigm through her nuanced exploration of the ambiguities inherent to the novel’s setting. For she is interested in probing the grey areas of the conflict, which existed even while it was at its peak. The 1975 milieu of Trespasses is one of the bloodiest years of the Troubles despite a ceasefire, with a high number of tit-for-tat murders occurring alongside large-scale atrocities such as the Miami Showband massacre by the UVF in Co Down and the IRA’s renewed bombing campaign in England.
Trespasses takes place in Holywood, Co Down, a “mixed” suburb and “a garrison town”, “just a few miles away” from Belfast. Holywood sits on the shoreline of Belfast Lough, inhabiting a liminal space between the city and the sea. The coastal vista resembles a postcard scene: “The sky was cloudless, the hills across the lough petrol-blue, ribbed with white dashes, bungalows, rows of houses; the water dark where it narrowed towards the shipyards, the city sprawled around it.” Kennedy juxtaposes this picturesque setting with the atmosphere of dread that permeates the townscape, capturing Holywood’s paradoxical environment in vivid detail. Words like “Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard”, are “the vocabulary of a seven-year-old child”; the local priest is more frightening than a bomb scare; a British Army duck patrol crashes a wedding reception; and a UDA brigadier gives chocolate Easter eggs to Catholic schoolchildren “to make amends in the form of confectionery”.
The threat of violence is ambient, carried on the air by radio and television news reports – which are always playing in the background – and by the sounds of bomb blasts that reach the town from Belfast. When Cushla encounters people from the city, “they treat her like a tourist” and inform her that Holywood is “not exactly a war zone”. She contemplates “the accusation that was implicit in their patter, that her family’s lives were easy because the town they lived in was ‘mixed’ and had seen little trouble. In the pub, Cushla had heard people say it was ‘very mixed’, pursing their mouths in distaste because they had to share the place with Catholics who barely made up ten per cent of the population.” Cushla works part-time in the family pub, which is frequented by people from both “sides”, as well as British soldiers from the local barracks. Pubs are prime targets for paramilitary attacks and Cushla’s family is hyperaware of their exposure as Catholic publicans in a mainly Protestant area who serve a wide range of patrons. Cushla meets the mysterious Michael on this uncertain ground and their forbidden affair upends not only their own lives, but also the tenuous social scaffolding that had kept their entire world in place.
The main story of Trespasses takes place between February and early autumn 1975. At that time Northern Ireland existed in a political vacuum, following the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974 and the dissolution of the Assembly by the Northern Ireland Act, which transferred legislative powers to London and remained in force for another twenty-five years. The Act also established the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention, a forum for developing new constitutional arrangements which began in 1975 and folded after less than a year. It ultimately failed to achieve cross-community consensus on devolved power-sharing. As the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) opposed power-sharing from the outset, the chance of the Convention succeeding was always unlikely. Northern Ireland’s political void was filled by escalating paramilitary violence, and Cushla and Michael fall in love amid an increasingly divided society where it seems that “nothing is sacred”. Kennedy remarks, “I didn’t set out to write a book about the Troubles. I set out to write a love story, but I couldn’t set it in that year without the Troubles coming into it”.
“It’s not about what you do here … It’s about what you are,” Michael tells Cushla. In a sectarian site where identity is overdetermined, individuation is an especially fraught process. Michael is keen to distinguish himself from fellow members of the Protestant community, announcing, “I’m an all-Ireland sort of chap”. His nonconformist views give him a reputation in the town: “He made that documentary about the 1798 rebellion that caused ructions. He’s been outspoken against internment, defended a few of the civil rights crowd when nobody else would tough them.” Michael is quick to assure Cushla of his nationalist sympathies but he is unforthcoming about the dangerous nature of his legal casework. “There was so little he could tell her,” she reflects.
Cushla disobeys her employers at the Catholic primary school by helping Davy McGeown, a bullied student whose “mixed” family is threatened by Protestant neighbours in their predominantly loyalist housing estate. The local Catholic community disapproves of Cushla’s association with the family because “the mother is a Prod” and “though the children were being brought up Catholic, she had not turned”. Rejected by both “sides”, the McGeowns “have nobody” and Cushla puts herself at risk by befriending them. Cushla and Michael each make boldly compassionate gestures towards the vulnerable in Northern society and, ironically, their humane acts mark them as beyond the pale.
The pair bond over their similar political views and their love of the arts, where they are on equal footing. However, Cushla is still navigating early adulthood and her relationship with Michael causes her to question her self-identity. She scoffs that hers “isn’t a real Irish name”, telling him, “It’s from an endearment. A chuisle mo chroí: the pulse of my heart.” Upon learning that she speaks Irish, Michael invites her to dinner with his posh bohemian friends for an “Irish night” at their mansion on the Malone Road in Belfast. Cushla regards this as their first date but soon realises he has brought her to show off his “token Taig”. She thinks, “she was too young, too unsophisticated, too Catholic”. Under the gaze of a surveillance culture, Cushla sees herself reflected in the eyes of those watching her and Michael together and she grows increasingly uneasy. “We live here, Lavery,” a friend warns her, “There are things we can’t do.”
Well-off compared to most of her Catholic neighbours, not Catholic enough for Father Slattery, too Irish for Michael’s friends, Cushla is attracted to Michael for his experience of the wider world beyond Northern Ireland. When she looks in the mirror, “The woman she was willing to be for Michael Agnew was looking back at her”. Trespasses is a distinctive Troubles novel for its portrayal of the intricacies of Northern class divisions, and how class systems function in a society that is already divided along sectarian lines. Kennedy explores the different ways the conflict affected suburban middle class Catholic and Protestant communities, as well as working class families in a “mixed” estate. She confirms, “I am interested in class and how it can be particularly complex in a society where other things are not equal.” Kennedy posits:
The novel maybe isn’t a view of the north people see often. These [Cushla’s family] are middle-class Catholics: they’re not being pulled out of their beds by soldiers every night. They’re trying to find a way to keep their heads down in an area where they’re in the minority, but at the same time they’re aspirational. There absolutely are snobberies within those Catholic communities; it’s not “we’re all downtrodden together”.
Cushla has a few nights out with her colleague Gerry – who has his own reasons for secrecy – and her mother advises her, “You should be looking for a fella a bit more sophisticated”. “If she knew,” Cushla muses, “there was something about Michael Agnew that made you want to be better than you were.” Kennedy depicts their searing passion, as well as the problematic power imbalance in their relationship, within the context of the habitual sexism in Ireland at the time. Literary allusions abound in the novel, and there is certainly something of Edna O’Brien’s Mr Gentleman about Michael Agnew. Kennedy winkingly implies this resemblance while the couple are away on a “dirty weekend”, in a Dublin bookshop scene that echoes a passage in The Lonely Girl (1962) when Cait encounters Eugene Gaillard.
Despite his history of philandering, Cushla cannot resist Michael – not when he looks for all the world “like a Malone Road James Bond. Or your man from the Milk Tray ad”. Behind Michael’s “refined accent” and genteel veneer is a self-described “ould lad” with a “Fenian fetish” who laments that he was not the one to “deflower” Cushla. He patronises her and she criticises herself for being totally in his thrall, but there is no hotline she can dial for help with this problem:
Messages flashed by. USE THE CONFIDENTIAL TELEPHONE NUMBER […] IF YOU’RE SUSPICIOUS DIAL 999 […] DON’T LET THE BOMBER GET YOUR CAR […] DON’T LET CHILDREN PLAY WITH TOY GUNS […], the final ellipsis leaving endless possibilities. DON’T FALL FOR A MARRIED PROD TWICE YOUR AGE […] DON’T AGREE TO SEE HIM EVERY SINGLE TIME IT SUITS HIM […]
Recently I asked Kennedy how she identifies as an author and she responded that she is “an Irish writer and, when pressed, northern with a small ‘n’”. She confirms that hers is a distinctly Northern authorial sensibility, noting, “I lost my accent a long time ago, but my inner voice is northern.” She discovered her mode of writing about the North while composing “In Silhouette”, a masterly Troubles tale published in the Belfast magazine The Tangerine. She explains: “I had found a voice that I liked and a way of writing about place that was about more than location.” This story caught the eye of a literary agent, who approached her about publishing a book. Kennedy recalls that writing “In Silhouette” – which also depicts a young woman coming of age during the Troubles in the 70s – “ignited something in me: a desire to understand how we lived then”. She began to work on another story in a similar setting, which would ultimately become Trespasses.
After a thirty-year career as a professional chef, Kennedy turned her hand to literature when a friend invited her to attend a writing group. During lockdown her hilariously blunt home cooking tips went viral on Twitter: “If a recipe says shit like ‘cook the onions until they’re translucent, about 3 mins’ they’re lying.” Her straightforward writing style crackles with the same salty humour. Bloomsbury bought Kennedy’s debut short story collection and novel in an unprecedented nine-way auction. She is the only woman to have been shortlisted twice for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award (in 2019 and 2020), for “In Silhouette” and “Sparing the Heather”. These stories are included in her acclaimed first collection, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac (2021), which won the John McGahern Prize for best fiction debut by an Irish writer. In 2021, Queens University Belfast chose Kennedy as a Ciaran Carson Writing and the City Fellow. Numerous publications highlighted Trespasses as a highly anticipated book ahead of its release, including The Observer, which selected Kennedy as a Best Debut Novelist of 2022. Her novel was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 as a “Book at Bedtime”, and it was shortlisted for the inaugural Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize.
Kennedy pinpoints 1970s Northern Ireland as her “hot place” as a writer, one to which she returns obsessively in her imagination. Her debut novel contextualises this period by punctuating everyday life with the horrifyingly regular roll call of deaths, as well as major political events. Diplock courts, the Hooded Men, loyalist romper rooms, Bloody Sunday, the Lyric Theatre bombing, the Sunningdale Agreement, the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike, and the Dublin and Monaghan bombings are part of a litany of experiences that are mentioned in the book. “Do you think this is a war?” a reporter asks Michael. “If it’s not, I’d love someone to tell me what it is,” he retorts. The novel limns the intense sensory impressions of war, conveying an unshakeable feeling of foreboding so convincingly that it prompts a strong physical response within the reader. At a recent event celebrating the book Kennedy asserted, “A novel is very impressionistic, like memory. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” Trespasses expresses the truth of embodied experience, relaying in incisive and uncluttered prose the memory of what it felt like to live and love as a young woman at the height of the Troubles.
The love story is told from Cushla’s perspective, and reading Trespasses is an astonishingly visceral experience due to the immediacy of the extremely close third-person narrative. As her name suggests, Cushla is the beating heart of the novel. It is, as Kennedy emphasises, “very much in Cushla’s body and in her head”. Her writing is intimately attuned to the subtlest shifts of the lovers’ bodies and minds, which are wired for hypervigilance by their violent surroundings. She registers their vacillating feelings of desire and fear, which are heightened by the intensifying conflict. Kennedy states: “I could show what they’re feeling in their bodies and how they’re responding to what’s around them.” When Cushla and Michael are together, “Her gut burned with want … Sounds she could feel on her skin.” When they are apart, the sounds she hears are “heavy with portent”, and “Fear came on her with terrible clarity.”
The title of Trespasses evokes the Our Father/Lord’s Prayer, a prayer of contrition whose recitation was used during the Troubles as a method to find out “what foot you kicked with”, as the Catholic and Protestant versions have different endings. The book’s title also refers to the crossing of invisible boundaries in a fractured society. Cushla and Michael’s relationship develops against a backdrop of mounting tensions in the town. Their ill-fated affair is part of a sequence of events beyond Cushla’s control that she wishes she could undo “one by one”. Nevertheless, she recognises that it is “just bad luck, the sort of thing that happened here all the time”. Far from rendering their “love-across-the-divide” as a literary cliché, Kennedy demonstrates that “mixed” relationships were a part of quotidian reality during the conflict; albeit one which compounded an already hazardous existence. The novel is all the more heart-wrenching for depicting lovers who dare to hope in the face of seemingly impossible odds, as the violence surrounding them gathers an unstoppable momentum.
The author’s profound empathy for her characters is drawn from personal experience and she discloses, “I cried a lot while I was writing this.” Kennedy reveals that she was inspired to write Trespasses because “I wanted to tell a story of the lives that people like my family had, and our place in the world at that time. It was a way to say that we were there.” She returns to her home town in her debut novel, which she describes in the acknowledgements as “a work of fiction that is based on true events”. Kennedy was reared in Holywood, where her family owned a pub. She was a child when they were bombed out of the North, forcing them into exile across the border. “Somebody wanted us out,” she says frankly.
They moved down south to Co Kildare after their pub was targeted twice in the 1970s. The first time, a 150-pound bomb hidden in a beer keg inside a van parked outside the pub did not detonate, and it was defused by security forces. Six months later, a second bomb was planted at the pub. It exploded and the family began their exodus. In an interview with Susan McKay, Kennedy confided, “My biggest fear about the book was that people would be like, what right do you have to be writing about this? Because I just sound so southern.” She continued, “The story [in the novel] is fiction, but the setting in the pub is completely drawn from what I can remember of what our pub looked like, down to the banquettes and the teak tables and the big Babycham fawn behind the bar that I was demented about. They never gave it to me.”
Trespasses unfolds with the energy and propulsion of a story that was waiting to be told. Kennedy calls attention to the “huge amount of really great writing coming out of the North, or by people who are from there but now living elsewhere. Not all of it is specifically about the Troubles but I do think there is a very Northern streak. … There’s [also] fiction dealing with legacy issues, not about what happened then, but the effect of those years.” Her novel, bookended by a prologue and epilogue set in 2015, shows how the events of 1975 continue to affect her characters forty years later. She points out that “people are calling it historical fiction”, but the conflict is “something that happened during my lifetime”. The Troubles are not relegated to history in Northern Ireland. They exist in living memory, and in transgenerational memory that has been passed down within families. For those who did not experience the conflict first-hand, Kennedy’s immersive storytelling transports readers to a specific time and place, enabling them to envision 1970s Northern Ireland.
Of our current political impasse Kennedy observes, “The peace process has always been fragile. And it is just that: a process. Brexit has thrown lots of things into disarray.” Reading Trespasses in 2022, one cannot help but notice the political echoes in Northern Ireland then and now. Attempts at power-sharing have failed once again and Anglo-Irish relations are at their lowest point in decades. Rampant sectarian violence has given way to culture wars. The DUP have collapsed the Assembly, ostensibly in protest of the Northern Ireland Protocol (part of the Brexit deal designed to prevent the return of a hard border), which they perceive as “an existential threat” to the Union. However, the DUP’s actions are also a tacit protest against power-sharing with a historic Sinn Féin majority and a nationalist First Minister-elect. Meanwhile the Tory government is forcing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill through Parliament unilaterally, without the consent of the Northern people and in violation of international law.
Kennedy affirms that art has an integral role to play in the ongoing process of peacebuilding in the North, by offering an imaginative space to navigate the past in order to envisage a way forward: “In a place where identity and the naming of things is so fraught, art can be a way of saying the unsayable.” The main body of her book is divided into four sections, whose titles are derived from the different artforms that link Cushla and Michael: literature, the Irish language, painting, and song. Trespasses is a statement of the power of art to connect us through shared experience, while eschewing Troubles narratives that are “slabbered in clichés about love and forgiveness”. When asked what she is working on now, Kennedy quipped, “I have another Northern story that’s pulling me in again. This might just be what I do.”
During an episode of BBC Radio 4’s “Open Book”, the host, Chris Power, asked Kennedy an absurdly sexist question: whether “as a woman she felt conscious that it was unusual to be writing about conflict and violence, which are very often a male preserve”. She replied matter-of-factly:
A lot of my experience of [writing about the memory of the Troubles] is questions like, just how did my mother manage to get a carton of powdered milk during the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike? Or, how did she navigate roadblocks in Ardoyne when we were on our way up to visit my granny? During the conflict in the North, there were a relatively small number of people who were actively involved in what was happening. Everyone else was just trying to find a way to navigate what was going on. From the point of view of women, it was about trying to keep home life quite normal and to keep things rolling, which was at times really quite bizarre. That’s the sort of story that I’m interested in.
Power’s query is symptomatic of culturally dominant, gendered misconceptions about the Troubles and their recording in literature. Trespasses is part of a current surge of exceptional Troubles fiction by Northern women that builds on the body of women’s writing published during the conflict – an oeuvre which remains inexcusably underread. As Kennedy’s response indicates, narratives about everyday female experiences are vital to a more holistic understanding of the Troubles and its legacy.
“It was so much easier to say nothing than to forget. This is what Cushla remembered.” She makes this observation while watching a TV news report recounting the violent events of the previous year. Kennedy’s retrospective narrative illustrates how the recent past remains contested in the present. Despite the British government’s latest attempt to “deal with the past” by “drawing a line under it” via the widely denounced Troubles Bill, Kennedy’s novel is proof that there are more stories to tell. Part romance, part political thriller, and part bildungsroman, this genre-defying novel traverses the traditional boundaries of the Troubles text. Suspenseful and sensuous, beautiful and brutal, Trespasses is an instant classic. Not only is it one of the best books of the year, it is also one of the best Troubles novels to be published in the post-Good Friday Agreement period. Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses is a masterwork and an extraordinary debut by a major new voice from the North of Ireland. This exquisitely wrought story is at once heart-stoppingly tender and terrifying – a powerful reminder of “how we lived then”, and how the wounds of history remain raw and real today.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Scholar in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast and Visiting Fellow in the Arts and Humanities Institute at Maynooth University. She is co-editor of the anthology Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). She is on Twitter @drdawnmiranda.