An Empathetic View of Northern Irish Life: Trespasses and The Raptures


The Raptures was released in January this year, while Trespasses was released in March Naomi McKeown with permission for VARSITY

Content Note: Includes discussion of issues

by Louise Kennedy Offenses and Jan Carson The Raptures showcase the emerging writing talent of Ireland, particularly that linked to the North, in recent years. Released this year (Carson in January, Kennedy in March 2022), they shine by their ability to situate themselves in the universes of their retrospective sets, and by the tender empathy with which they treat their subjects.

by Carson The Raptures follows eleven-year-old Hannah Adger, her classmates and family in the fictional village of Ballylack. Over the course of a summer, his classmates begin to fall ill with a mysterious and violent illness. As the tragedy unfolds, we watch the reaction of the intertwined residents of Ballylack to the crisis as panic grows and tensions escalate. Set in 1993, it perfectly captures the budding hope still found today in the Northern Irish community among young people with an ironic awareness of the inability of young people to comprehend its gravity. “We are the future of Northern Ireland. We had a special assembly on this subject last month. Despite the serious subject matter, Carson is typically witty, his humor gentle and never infantilizing or dismissive of his young protagonist.

His exploration of evangelical Protestantism is particularly emblematic of this approach. She challenges her doctrines and takes hold of Hannah and her family, while maintaining a compassionate, three-dimensional view of her characters and their experiences. Carson’s exploration of the dichotomy between Hannah’s mother’s faith and her motherhood is uniquely centered around this. Sanda’s quiet acts of defiance towards her husband reveal the tensions between doctrine and reality in her failed search for comfort from her overzealous husband:

“Tell her she’s in the hands of the Lord, Sandra. Tell him he’s still in control.

Hannah’s mother hangs up. In twenty-one years of marriage, she’s never done anything so daring before […] This morning, she deliberately hung up the phone, interrupting him mid-sentence.

Right now, something significant is changing inside Mom. She now knows she could raise her voice to her husband. She could even raise her fists if the situation called for it. It’s not something she’s felt before. It rests in her belly like an iron weight.

-Jan Carson, The Raptures

“There’s an unwavering ability to show the country’s darker sides in both, but that’s balanced by recognition of its unique humor and charm.”

Offenses is Kennedy’s first novel, following her series of critically acclaimed short stories, The end of the world is a dead end. It’s precision crafted and one of the few books I started reading again as soon as I finished it. Cushla Lavery divides her time between her job as a teacher and working in her family’s bar, notably run by her Catholic family, despite her predominantly Protestant clientele. It was here that she met the much older Michael Agnew, a Protestant lawyer. The couple become entangled in a business doomed to failure. In Cushla’s life as a primary school teacher, we are also introduced to young Davy, the child of a mixed marriage, and the difficulties that brings. Admittedly a synopsis that seems almost stereotypical of a Troubles novel, what sets Kennedy’s depiction of 1970s Belfast apart is its exacting descriptive ability. Similar to Carson, they are deeply compassionate portraits of ordinary people, with ordinary flaws.

In particular, Kennedy’s portrayal of the affair is imbued with that characteristic tenderness, without losing sight of the thornier issues of such involvement with an older married man. His dialogue manages to capture this while retaining its conciseness and humor:

Why does everyone think I’m a judge? he said.

Because you are old and you speak well.

You are ruthless.

Sorry. I was going to tell you a reason why I love you, but I don’t want to sound too enthusiastic.

God forbid. What are you doing this week end?

-Louise Kennedy, Offenses

His observation of the character is also lovingly humorous, as in the introduction to pub patrons, “Jimmy O’Kane, the single egg he bought for his tea dished in his breast pocket”.

It would be wrong to describe either of these stories as tales of trouble, although perhaps Offenses turns closer in the field. A more accurate description would be that in their explorations of Northern Irish life, they wonder what it means to live in such a place; as Carson lovingly describes it: “its own institution, special as a young aunt”. There’s an unwavering ability to show the country’s darker sides in both, but it’s offset by recognition of its unique humor and charm.

There is an awareness of moral dullness for most people in Northern Ireland – that people you associate with, have a drink in a pub may believe or do things you find deeply wrong. Although it’s often treated as overtly threatening (Anna Burns’ excellent film Dairy comes to mind), it’s refreshing to see Carson and Kennedy’s more human approach. Here, there are no bad guys; characters are given room to breathe and are carefully probed to reveal themselves.


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