‘A glorious late flowering’: Married Quarters by Shane Connaughton
The author holds the balance here beautifully between brutal depths and lyrical heights, wild humour and salt tears
Shane Connaughton at the 42nd annual Writers Guild of America Awards in 1990 in Beverly Hills, California. Photograph: Ron Galella / Getty Images
I relished every line of this book.
I’ve been following the author’s work for about 40 years and can’t say how pleased I am to see him referred to as “the great Shane Connaughton”, and his first book, A Border Station, acknowledged as “a classic”. It’s high time. Your man has been around every block and paid all his dues.
Here’s a writer who’s done everything it’s possible to do with a pen, and it seems to me all he’s ever achieved is coming together now in a glorious late flowering.
As a lauded stage dramatist he certainly knows how to set up a scene and fill it with full-blooded, alive-and-kicking characters, and then give them the funniest, most muscular and tender dialogue. As a prizewinning screenwriter he can paint a broad, richly-coloured canvas, then step in close to give us the cross-haired, hair’s breadth, tiniest of telling details. Like Joyce he renders the local universal, and makes the ordinary utterly extraordinary. Better yet, in an unwilled, natural-as-breathing way, he loves the texture of life and strikes the truly affirmative note time and time again. That’s a hard thing to pull off without sentimentality, gilded lilies, or wishful thinking. But he holds the balance here beautifully between brutal depths and lyrical heights, wild humour and salt tears.
If you don’t respond to the way Shane Connaughton strings together a sentence and a yarn I’d say you’re word-blind, tone-deaf and soul-dead
Some readers regarded A Border Station as a book of linked short stories (so what? It’s all that and more). Married Quarters takes a similar form by the scruff of the neck and shakes new shapes out of it. Here at the spine of the narrative is “the boy” living in a barracks on the Border with his sergeant father (“a rock on fire”) and his loving mother (“her mystery was her gentleness”); one by one, fresh gardaí join the barracks, live out a year or so of their lives, make their impact on the family and the village, then go on their way. Each of these men is a fabulous and fascinating creation. Little by little, though, the wide-eyed boy comes to realise (as do we reading the book, and leading our own lives) that what really counts are the constants: community, neighbours, blood relations. And of course as soon as these things are experienced as unchanging and eternal, they start to shift and slide, like the country around them.
The boy’s sensibility gradually evolves, too, from school-kid to college-boy, from runner to walker, from watcher to reader, as the old rulebooks of church and law decay and fall through his fingers. And with raging, painful inevitability, home itself has to be left behind, and the uncertain future faced.
The final, farewell pages of the novel rock the reader like waves crashing against a strand. The heart hurts, along with the boy’s. Thank goodness the cock crows at the very end, promising a new beginning! But it’s a massive loss for him and us to be torn away forever from that precious time and sacred turf – although, thanks to Connaughton’s miraculous memory and passionate witness, we can always return there whenever we choose by re-opening these pages.
Every step of the dance and every line of the prose seem to me like a full-hearted gift. Connaughton rarely thinks of himself as a poet (although when the mood takes him he still writes “occasional” poetry) but his language unfailingly pulses with rhythm and glitters with imagery. Try this (taken pretty much at random from 300 pages’ worth):
“People believed in things that hadn’t happened and never would. No one was immune to the outlandish. The country was run like a tatty magic show. No end of mumbo-jumbo and hands delving into tall hats and under black cloth and producing white pigeons as if from nowhere. The people gave themselves up to three-card-trick men.”
If you don’t respond to the way Shane Connaughton strings together a sentence and a yarn I’d say you’re word-blind, tone-deaf and soul-dead.
Don’t miss this book!
Kerry Lee Crabbe is a writer/director/producer in theatre, film and television. He also works as a lyricist because he likes hanging around with musicians. His first book is due as soon as they develop brain recognition