Ireland, summer 2009: a country in recession, people emigrating in droves, the formerly bustling main streets of rural towns hollow with empty windows and boarded-up doors. It's no wonder that 11-year-old Jason Lowry dreams of escaping the dreariness.
Jason and a new friend he meets at the town’s Swamp, a polluted pool of rising water, imagine fleeing to far-flung locations, from ancient Egypt to the Russian steppes to Ithaca, home to Odysseus in Greek mythology and the fitting title of Alan McMonagle’s enthralling debut novel.
In Homer's Odyssey Ithaca is "a rugged isle, but a good nurse of young men", something that young Jason is lacking in his life to date. His mother is a severely unstable vodka-swilling joyrider who gave birth to Jason while she was a teenager and has seemingly regretted it ever since. Her few possessions amount to a hurley, a photograph of Marlon Brando and two bottles of wine, one empty and one full: "The empty one I drank two hours after giving birth to you, she told me. The full one, I'm saving for the next happy day in my life."
McMonagle has a dark and very Irish sense of humour on the twin topics of home and parenthood. While Ma invents terminal illnesses for her son, to garner sympathy and attention for herself, Jason doesn’t know his da. In a desperately tender scene that sees him discover his birth certificate in an attic, we’re told: “The box for father had been left blank. There it was. Da was a blank. An empty space. Not even worth a black mark in a square box.”
Jason's quest to identify his father gives a loose structure to this fierce and funny novel that tackles tough topics with great imaginative flair. Ithaca doesn't take itself too seriously, and is all the more affecting for it. The book's refrain that "the country is a sinking ship" comes through vividly in the setting and townspeople. Jason's jaunts around town are reminiscent of Francie Brady in The Butcher Boy – young bucks who are wonderful mimics of adult mannerisms while simultaneously struggling to understand the intricacies and injustices of the grown-up world.
Refuge in myth
As he traipses around a vividly depicted town – the fetid waters of the Swamp, the posh houses on Rich Hill, McMorrow’s dimly lit pub – Jason introduces us to an array of fleeting but memorable characters: “Talking Harry Brewster and pointing Fergal Flood. Patrick Fox and barking Rommel and Himmler”. There’s the village gossip Lily the Nose, Barrabus Diffley the moneylender, and the much maligned Virgin Gemma: “You would need the driveshaft of a continental lorry to get through her knickers.”
The way Jason courts trouble from the town’s bullies, Brains and No Brains, recalls Francie Brady in tone: “Lads, I haven’t got all day. Enough of this shilly-shallying about. Come on. Get stuck in”.
McMonagle credits McCabe as an early teacher who kindled a flame, but Jason is set apart from Francie in that his violent imagination is mostly turned inward. From razor-blade cutting to drug taking to the quietly gripping climax, self-harm is what Jason resorts to when his imagination fails to save him from reality.
In the strange and sometimes ethereal tripping around town there are similarities to Caitriona Lally's debut, Eggshells. The marginalised narrators of both novels take refuge in myth and imagination when the shoddy social structures around them collapse.
McMonagle’s compassion for his characters shines throughout the novel, with even the atrocious actions of Ma modified through Jason’s descriptions. For all her neglect he sees her as “the little girl she would have been in the not so distant past, full of her own ideas and dreams”.
The poignancy of the book stems from how much Jason’s world revolves around his mother, despite her diligent attempts to reject him. More tenderness comes from Jason’s relationship with “the girl” he meets at the Swamp, a comic liaison of innocently lewd banter.
From Galway, McMonagle has previously written for radio and has published two collections of short stories, both nominated for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. The vibrancy of his style ensures that even minor characters are remembered: “At her low table by the wall, the pale-faced woman was smoking her unlit cigarette.” She is but one example of a number of ghosted-out people trying to deal with the country’s recession.
For Jason and his friend the exotic Ithaca offers refuge and new beginnings. Skilfully meshing imagination with reality, McMonagle sets out to discover if the same things can be found at home.
The novel belongs to Jason and his Ma, who, through an epic journey of adversity, manage to find their way back to each other.