June 2022

Noted

‘Trespasses’

By Helen Elliott
Cover image of Louise Kennedy’s ‘Trespasses’
The powerful debut novel from Irish author Louise Kennedy is a masterclass in emotional compression

Cushla’s name, chosen by her father, means “the pulse of my heart”. That such a name, unusual in Ireland, can be given by a father to his daughter is both sentimental and grand. Louise Kennedy’s Cushla lives up to her name.

Kennedy says she is a northern Irish writer with a small “n”. She is in her fifties and last year published a collection of 15 short stories to unusual acclaim. Before this, she worked for 30 years as a chef. She grew up Catholic in Protestant Belfast and Dublin, and worked in a family-owned pub. She met her partner in a pub, moved to Sligo, had a family, got a PhD, got cancer. She was never one “who had always been scribbling away”; never had expectations of being a writer.

Yet that tyranny of circumstances has given her a voice brilliantly her own. Powerful, edgy, grim, hilarious, and impossible to encapsulate because it not only has the elusiveness of a poem but is Irish in a profound and indefinable way. Edna O’Brien. Anne Enright. Anna Burns. Sally Rooney. That particular collision of language and insight that seems to have landed with unfair heft in the Irish. They have a bandwidth all their own and the results are intoxicating. You’d grant them a right to be haughty about their gift.

At the heart of Trespasses (Bloomsbury), Kennedy’s debut novel, is a love affair as passionate and as foolishly romantic as any Brontë sister might write. (Patrick Brontë was Irish.) Cushla, a primary-school teacher by day, helps her brother out in the family-owned pub at night. The setting is a suburb of Belfast, a garrison town. It is the mid 1970s. Cushla is 24, from a Catholic family and teaching at a Catholic school. One night in the bar she notices a man: “Dark-eyed, faintly jowly. He was wearing a black suit and a stiff white shirt from which the collar had been detached, clothes that were conspicuous among the overalls and the drip-dry fabric.” He has a “neat whisky and tidy nails”.

Her widowed, alcoholic mother, dashed in with masterful brevity, knows him, too. “Is he still gorgeous?” she asks. “He was a ladykiller in his day.” His name is Michael Agnew, he’s fifty-ish and married to a woman from “some posh Protestant family”. He is a barrister involved in civil rights. Cushla learns that his compassion, that unfettered movement of a warm heart, causes him to take on cases his friends advise against. She learns later that he knew her father. “He was a beautiful man,” he tells her. There’s no turning back after those words.

Michael has a flat in town where he and Cushla meet in private. They are so tender and intimate that reading them here seems voyeuristic. Michael suggests that Cushla teach Irish to a group of his close friends. These sophisticated friends, two couples who, despite being intellectually concerned, seem insulated from the unspeakable daily traumas of Belfast, introduce Cushla to a different world. Creativity, imagination and refinement are normal in the easeful house where they meet. In Cushla’s working life there is the exhaustion of trying to teach seven-year-olds under the eye of a principal and priest whose religion is bigotry and ignorance. Her open-heartedness, intelligence, kindness and her ardent love for Michael Agnew play out against the tableau of Ireland in those black-hearted years. The building sense of tragedy is so intense that it is impossible, at times, to turn the page.

Trespasses is a masterclass in emotional compression. Say the name Cushla, slow and soft, and you are already there in Kennedy’s world.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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