Mia Gallagher’s second novel begins, bracingly, on the London Underground. “With the hissing sound of a seventies’ Schweppes commercial, the doors open. Mind the Gap, calls a clipped voice.” Now the reader is one amongst the fidgeting passengers inside a crowded train carriage “hurtling along the bed of the underground river”. Despite the everydayness of the scene, there is a distinct sense of impending catastrophe. “Here, in the land of the underground king, we are ripe for the taking.” The scene builds up to the explosion, ending just a moment before. As for who of relevance to the story perished in the blast; it takes almost the entire novel to find out.
Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland borrows its title from an old photo book described about 20 pages in. Cloth-bound, wrapped in a velveteen dust jacket, its machine-sewn pages show black and white photographs of scenes from late 19th-/early 20th-century Bohemia. They appear to "have been thumbed but are not dog-eared" as if "this is a book that someone has held open and gazed at, a book whose pages careful fingers have smoothed, as if stroking the window of a departing train". The inscription suggests it has been passed down through a family, beginning with somebody called Anna.
At this stage of the novel, Anna, like the victim of the London train bomb, remains mysterious to the reader. These are just two of many puzzles eked out over the novel's course in various different formats: footnotes, interviews, maps, questionnaires, artefacts entered into a catalogue, a fantastical tour guide, even a libretto. Fonts change and symbols pop up in the gaps between sections (a tiny sun, a tiny clock, a tiny bomb); Beautiful Pictures . . . is anything but drab.
Nine years have passed since Gallagher's debut, Hellfire; an enthralling and subversive epic of working-class Dublin. Her second novel is similarly rich in colour and broad in scope, and its many unruly pieces are similarly held in place by the strong voice of a central character.
At the book’s heart, there is Georgie Madden. We are first introduced to her in adult life as she records an audio letter for her father, prompted to do so by a gift received in the post after many years of estrangement. The gift, as well as the reason for their separation, are two more of the novel’s puzzles.
When we meet Georgie again, it’s the 1970s and she is a child in the back seat of her father’s car on a road-trip from Dublin to Down, visiting her grandparents.
The story of young Georgie is also that of her parents’ fractured marriage and her mother’s battle against breast cancer. It is told, as well as from her own perspective, from that of her father, David, and from that of Lotte, a young woman from Bristol who Georgie’s mother hires to clean and baby-sit as her own health deteriorates. These sections of the book are steeped in grief, but Gallagher captures the complicated feelings which circle around death with enough skill and sensitivity to prevent the gloom from becoming oppressive.
Georgie is an awkward youth, large for her age and short on friends. She likes mermaids and coconut creams. Her childhood is, for the most part, horribly problematic, not only because of her mother’s slow dying, but also because Georgie was born and raised a boy.
In the sections from David and Lottes' perspectives, she is referred to as the "he" she appears. In the chapters from her adult life, Gallagher never goes into the graphic details of surgery or hormone replacement, instead focusing on Georgie's psychological struggle, the set of "trans-rules" she has taught herself to live by, her unremitting anxiety with regard to how she is perceived. The tenderness which with Gallagher approaches her subject immediately brought to mind Rose Tremain's 1992 novel, Sacred Country, about a boy-born-girl in provincial Suffolk in the 1950s. And yet, it is imprecise of me to contextualise Beautiful Pictures . . . as a gender-dysphoria story. At other times, I mistook it for a cancer story, a love story, a twin story, a war story.
And looming constantly, curiously, in the background of this clamorous mix, there is the Sudetenland. As a student of Leaving Cert history I remember learning how, as a result of the Munich Agreement, this German-speaking territory of Czechoslovakia was ceded to Hitler in 1938. What I didn't learn was that in the aftermath of the war, its German-Czech inhabitants were aggressively expelled from their homes. Many died of exhaustion and disease on the way to Germany or ended up living as refugees in the liberated concentration camps. A whole chapter of Beautiful Pictures . . . is devoted to the number of people "killed/displaced" during this period, running into the millions, as well as the atrocities perpetrated against them. These slices of history are linked with Lotte's past. Though I can't say they felt particularly necessary to the story, it was startling to learn of a tragedy so significant about which I had known so little.
Fortunately, Gallagher's writing is brilliant enough to paper over any cracks in relevance, to smooth the surface of this jagged novel. Her luscious descriptions make suburban Dublin appear peculiarly fascinating, and it doesn't matter that there are rather a lot of tenuously related characters because she is capable of portraying a great deal of what is important about a person in very few lines. Though somewhat baffling on the surface, Beautiful Pictures . . . is strangely coherent up close, like a magic-eye picture.
“They say the human brain remembers every single thing the eyes register,” grown-up Georgie tells her father in an audio letter, “like those baroque princes who used to collect oddments for their cabinets of curiosities, but we let ourselves forget because otherwise we’d go mad.” Gallagher is blessed with a brain better at this type of registration than most. Her second novel confirms her as a writer who doesn’t miss, or forget, a trick.
Sara Baume is the author of Spill Simmer Falter Wither.