Inventory: A River, A City, A Family, by Darran Anderson, Chatto and Windus, 358 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1784741501
In his memoir, Darran Anderson surveys a city whose name remains a shibboleth in our contemporary, supposedly “post-conflict” moment. He details the complicated nature of establishing one’s position in relation to the Maiden City, Stroke City, Doire, Derry, Londonderry, or as some would have it, Derry-Londonderry. The city’s image is a split signifier; for it is divided by the River Foyle which runs through its centre, separating and uniting the communities of the Cityside (on the west bank, traditionally Catholic) and the Waterside (on the east bank, traditionally Protestant).
Anderson was born in 1980 in Troubles-torn Derry, a site demarcated by strict sectarian geography, a ubiquitous surveillance regime, and a fraught history of violence. Growing up in a contested space, one’s sense of location is simultaneously overdetermined and unsettled. This paradox is heightened by Derry’s liminality as a city near the borderlands between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is an ordinary place that is firmly grounded in everyday working class life; but it is also an area traversed by the agents of conquest, conflict, commerce, and above all, History. Anderson is especially interested in those who fall through the city’s cracks, noting how “entire lives end up as marginalia”. Inventory: A River, A City, A Family traces the social cartography of Derry and examines how this intersects with its physical topography and material history.
Anderson writes creative nonfiction exploring urban space for a number of art and architecture publications. He also published an inventive, immersive short story about a disorienting cityscape entitled “The Eclipse” in the anthology Being Various: New Irish Stories (Faber and Faber, 2019), edited by fellow Northern writer Lucy Caldwell. Notably, Anderson only mentions Derry once in his previous book, Imaginary Cities (2015), a fascinating, sprawling compendium which was named Book of the Year by The Guardian and the Financial Times. He briefly references Free Derry, remarking that the no-go zone encompassing the Bogside and Creggan neighbourhoods “kept the occupying [British] army out for two years” and ruminating that “freespace” can sometimes emerge “from bullet-holes”. The epigraph to his debut book cites Italo Calvino, who asserts, “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” This statement clearly applies to the Derry, or “Derrys” of Anderson’s second book. He recognises that “there were other Derrys” which were different from the one he knows, but “all of them were marked with violence”.
Inventory is a powerful, palimpsestic map of a wounded landscape that opens up again and again, revealing something new to the observer each time, in tantalising glimpses. Anderson pieces together an account of his life, along with his family and his homeplace, using a narrative technique akin to collage. The chapter titles are an “inventory” of iconographic objects that symbolise particular memories, stories, secrets, and lies. His methodology is reminiscent of The Arcades Project (1927-1940), which charts Walter Benjamin’s observations of Paris using convolutes – fragments of fleeting thought. Anderson’s approach is similarly impressionistic, and it captures effectively the complex and shifting psychological responses to place.
Anderson’s memoir picks up where Seamus Deane left off in his masterful autofictional novel about his Derry childhood, Reading in the Dark, which was published after the IRA ended their ceasefire in 1996. Inventory begins in “the Troubles-strewn North” of the 1980s, following the stop-and-start peace process of the 1990s and 2000s, and ending in the current era of the Brexit crisis. Looking back at this sequence of Irish history, Anderson marvels:
I would never have believed then that people, politicians, the great and the good, would one day claim there had never been a border. That none of this existed, including me. They should have kept some of the checkpoints. Let them fall into ruin, but exist as warnings from history. Moving on was a refined way of covering up.
For many people in the North of Ireland, Brexit has thrown the border and its complicated history into stark relief. Nevertheless, Anderson contends that for others “the history of the North is basically an exercise in ignoring the huge complexities, nuances and contradictions”. In such generalising master narratives of History, “unforgettable things were ‘forgotten’”. As a counterpoint to these discourses, Inventory focuses on individual histories and lived experiences of a border city “perched on the very edge of Europe, an outland”.
Anderson describes his struggle for individuation as a boy in “our small council-house kingdom”, a territory shaped by violence, poverty and the weight of history. He plays in the back alleys and on the rooftops of his estate, or in the neighbouring one where his cousins live, in “a place nicknamed Bally-Bosnia”. It is a “monochrome” world where “life was in newsprint. The only colour seemed to be that of the flags.” A quiet, highly imaginative child, the young Darran seeks escape from “our rickety Victorian terraced house” and “the tumbledown terraced streets of our neighbourhood” by burying himself in books. He comments, “It left me not quite adjusted to real life; always one step removed. An observer.” In a recent interview, Anderson explains of his Derry upbringing, “It is a place that’s built me and my way of seeing the world, but one that I’m dislocated from and I’ve always … felt on the periphery of a periphery.”
As a youth, Darran becomes a self-described “corner boy”, partaking in misadventures with a mischievous group of friends. Things begin to turn violent when the lads grow older and get into more serious trouble. Meanwhile, war continues to explode around them, and one of the most affecting chapters of the book is the eponymous “Inventory” of Troubles-related deaths, a heart-wrenching litany of lost lives. Anderson discerns that whilst the nightly news reports provided standard information about the victims such as “the names … their religion, their profession, where the killings took place”, “every single one” also had “a story, from multiple perspectives”. His memoir is haunted by these untold stories, as well as by those of his own family members.
Inventory opens by asking, “How might it be possible to reconstruct a lost person?” The book ricochets back and forth in time, unearthing and reassembling remnants of Derry’s deep history alongside Anderson’s family history: two grandfathers, a smuggler and a deserter; a beloved grandmother who goes into the water at the exact spot where her husband drowned twenty years before; a mean, religious fanatic step-grandmother; a fierce but fearful mother; a laconic, pacifist father. All are a mystery to the young Darran. He particularly resents his father’s reticence, but eventually discovers that this “man of few words”, who had witnessed the Bloody Sunday massacre, deliberately kept quiet about his past involvement in the youth wing of the IRA and his eventual internment in “the Cages” at Long Kesh prison.
Anderson ponders his father’s shift to pacifism and concludes: “Violence begets violence. Those immersed in it know it; those who profit from it at a distance know it even more.” He experiences a profound revelation: “It became clear to me now what my father had given me. He had broken the cycle.” In a city where “the past had not passed” and “peace was continually squandered,” countless boys were lost to systemic violence. Today, this cycle continues for many boys growing up in Derry, a place “where children ape their elders” and transgenerational trauma pervades entire communities. However, Anderson’s father’s decision to break the cycle for his family gives the author cause for hope. He reflects, “We lived merely in the most current incarnation of Derry. Who knows what versions are to follow?”
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Research Fellow in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. She has taught at Maynooth University, the University of Edinburgh, and the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School (SUISS). She is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). She has also published in Irish Studies Review, Review of Irish Studies in Europe (RISE), Breac, Callaloo, Open Library of Humanities, The Stinging Fly, the Sunday Business Post, the Political Studies Association Blog, Four Nations History, and Writing the Troubles. She is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books, The Honest Ulsterman, and The Irish Times. Follow her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda.