Tale of ordinary lives in extraordinary times
Glenn Patterson’s new novel is a reassurance that an absurd upbringing can deliver you to sanity and wellbeing
Glenn Patterson, author of The Rest Just Follows: A Novel. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The Rest Just Follows
Faber & Faber
Three children in the early 1970s are starting their secondary education in Belfast. Though their lives, growing up, will take them through the violence, punk, the ceasefires and the peace talks, what unfolds mostly is the passage of time and the ordinary developments in young lives, the things that “just follow”. The title is a strong clue that we need not expect a tight plot with suspense or enormous upheavals.
We get to know these three characters, St John, Craig and Maxine, and to care about them, first as they try to comprehend the world through their self-centred young minds, and then as they respond to the crises that arise. As in real life, bad things happen by surprise, and so do good things.
They go to state schools; they live in a Protestant environment, and they don’t know any Catholics or show any curiosity about Catholics or disdain for them.
The language in the book, particularly at the start, is in the vernacular of Belfast children, and there is a marvel in it being both authentic and intelligible.
“Taking a shortcut across the wasteground that had used to be the Spar”, Maxine finds a pencil case and realises it was dropped by a boy being chased by her rough brother, Tommy. “Something Robinson she thought it was you called him.”
It is brave of a writer to chance a line like that and trust a reader not to have to take a second run at it. But it works.
St John is the “freak”. He is introduced to Craig by being forced to sit beside him at school. He lives with his eccentric mother and siblings in a big empty house and tries to maintain an orderly routine of getting himself to school in a family who decline to help. His mother, at one point, takes down all the curtains and tells her children they should live by natural light.
Craig is a bit too conscientious for his own good. Maxine is counting off the school days like a prisoner in a cell. One strong intervention by the Troubles is the arrest of Tommy and the trashing of their home by the RUC. At first this makes Maxine fascinating to the other children, who wonder if she has any other paramilitary brothers they might get to know. But then the graffiti says Tommy is a tout, and suddenly no one wants to talk to her.
There will be worse – a man shot dead in his bedroom, his partner stricken with grief – but there will also be parties and lovemaking and falling out and new hairdos. And these three will be all right, as the reader, becoming more engrossed in their lives, will need them to be all right.
The book works as a reassurance that an absurd upbringing can deliver you to sanity and wellbeing.
Glenn Patterson is, essentially, a kindly writer. He occasionally interjects an author’s comment, as in an account of the bombing of a car-tax office in which no one was hurt: “Such sometimes is the whimsical way of large explosive devices.”
Maxine looks at her dead father. “In truth he didn’t look as though dying had taken a lot out of him.”
Patterson loves people, and he seeks to understand and explain them. Some people in this book do vicious and stupid things, but there is no one who is really bad. Well, perhaps one.
The things that “just follow” are mostly relationships and job opportunities. Maxine is approached by a hairdresser who wants to give her a free cut. Or she stops to help a drunk and angry woman who can’t start her car. St John minds some goats for a few weeks, gets interviewed by a television reporter and suddenly has a lover. Craig, as a young history teacher, is approached by a rugby player who wants him to hold seminars for unionists on how to prepare themselves for the coming peace.
These are all chance events, but life is like that; some things grow out of circumstances, a lot of other things just happen. Patterson is inviting us to be glad of that.
He takes another big chance in creating female characters, particularly Maxine and St John’s sister and mother.
Maxine’s response to her first experience of lovemaking seems a bit disengaged: “Quick, I’m getting cold.”
The things that “just follow” for her include heavy periods disrupting business meetings and the shock of sharing a bed with a drunk and naked woman who cannot keep her hands off her.
Patterson’s project as a writer is to reacquaint us with Belfast’s past. Working studiously to get the history right, he takes two risks: that he will overpack the story with tiresome but showy detail, and that he will make a mistake.
rissons of nostalgia
For my generation, which remembers the times described in his
historical novels of the recent past – N umber 5 , The International and this new book – he triggers frissons of nostalgia. But do younger readers pick up the references, say, when a TV camera crew insist on another five minutes for a lunch break? Unless you know the background of outdated trade-union rules, this behaviour just seems rude and obsessive.
In Northern Ireland the past has been appropriated by political causes, and nothing more effectively dissolves those hard-edged visions than these light-touch reminders of the tomato-shaped sauce bottle in the Wimpy or of how schoolchildren smoking cigarettes used to shrivel-shrink their crisp bags with a lighter flame.
Maybe Patterson will have to answer for why he barely notices sectarianism. Perhaps his answer will be that this is the world he knew, one in which many from communities described as Protestant hardly thought of themselves as Protestant.
Maxine, St John and Craig all come into difficulties with people who want a neat version of the past to suit their political projects or their journalism. The kind of trouble you get into with lovers and family is slight compared with the difficulties created by those who will tell you the past was different from how you remember it. This point becomes central, though you could read the book and miss it, and not feel you had missed much.
Patterson is not making an overt political statement, but a work like this has political consequences. In demonstrating a near-flawless memory of how the past was, he is undermining the propagandist’s claim to know better.