The Effect of Her, by Gerard Stembridge
The ‘Scrap Saturday’ writer returns to political satire for his fourth novel
The Effect of Her
Old Street Publishing
Gerard Stembridge’s work as screenwriter and novelist is well known to Irish audiences. His brilliant scripting of Ordinary Decent Criminal set the bar for screenwriting, although Stembridge is perhaps more closely identified with his broadcast work, especially the memorable political lampooning of Scrap Saturday, written with the late Dermot Morgan.
In The Effect of Her, his fourth novel, Stembridge is writing in full political-satire mode once again and also attempting to encapsulate an Irish zeitgeist. This book is meant to do for the 1970s what his novel Unspoken did for the 1960s, with chapters taking place in each year of the decade. His enigmatic title derives from a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which also serves as an unlikely epigraph. (It is worth recalling that Eliot’s great novel bears the subtitle A Study of Provincial Life.)
The literary connection signals one of the book’s recurring strands. Joyce and Myles, along with Solzhenitsyn, Waugh and others, are quoted and analysed. A thirst for challenging books and their lingering effect distinguishes many of the book’s teenage or young adult characters. This alone would set the period apart from today’s world, but somehow the result, rather than making the 1970s come alive, seems more like the opening of a time capsule.
Stembridge’s creative undertaking is far more complex than its bright turquoise and orange cover might suggest.
The author uses the familiar device of introducing three parallel and eventually connecting plots. One limns the apparent downfall and resurrection of a very recognisable cabinet minister, CJ; another tracks the romance between the fiery redheaded journalist Mags Perry and Michael Liston, CJ’s right-hand man; the third appears in the form of the seemingly unrelated, and lacklustre, lives of Francis and Marion Strong, two of Ann and Fonzie Strong’s five children. The Strong family and Liston are among the recycled characters from Stembridge’s earlier fiction and, like the author, hail from Limerick. These storylines will eventually merge in a gay coming-of-age tale, one of the many relationships that form and re-form throughout the 10 years that pass in these pages.
The Effect of Her relates, in nonfictionalised detail, the social and political events that rocked Ireland in the 1970s, including the arms trial and the rise of the Irish women’s liberation movement, including Garret FitzGerald’s unscheduled appearance on The Late Late Show to challenge some of the movement’s assertions. (The FitzGerald character is archly drawn: he is referred to only as “Dr Garret FitzGerald”, with his interior monologues ending in exclamation points, as though he suffers from an excess of eureka moments.)
Stembridge loads his narrative with one headline story after another, especially those about sex, political scandal, violence and rock’n’roll: the media frenzy surrounding the contraceptive train to Belfast; Liam Cosgrave voting against his own government on the contraception bill; the Herrema kidnapping; the shock of Bloody Sunday and the Munich and Ewart-Biggs assassinations; and the opening of Mount Temple comprehensive school, cradle of U2.