The poet Nick Laird’s new novel, Modern Gods, has two subjects – modern Protestant Ulster, or a sliver of it at least as represented by the Donnelly family, and religious belief (and that’s belief of all kinds and not just the Protestant variety). Both subjects are truculent and it requires courage, chutzpah and then some to tackle these two together between hard covers; fortunately Nick Laird has the necessary qualities and he pulls it off magnificently.
The Donnelly family live in Ballyglass, a mid-sized mid-Ulster town that seems, at least to me, not unlike Cookstown, where the author grew up. The clan patriarch is Ken, sometime estate agent, flinty, dour, obdurate, and the matriarch is Judith, long suffering, indefatigable and rotten with cancer. Ken and Judith have three adult children. The oldest, Liz, is a New York-based academic and author of an Alain de Botton How Proust Can Save Your Life-type book, only instead of Proust her subject is Claude Lévi-Strauss and is called The Use of Myth: How Lévi-Strauss Can Help Us All Live a Little Better. (This is only one of many excellent gags that litter this very funny book).
Arrested and then convicted, he serves two years before release under the Good Friday Agreement
The middle child is Alison, a lonely divorcee, (her ex is Bill, an alcoholic policeman who regularly beat her). The youngest Donnelly is Spencer. He’s in the estate agency business like Dad and Alison, goes to the gym a lot and is conducting a discreet affair with Trisha, the receptionist at work and the wife of his best friend.
The sisters, Liz and Alison, are the drivers of the narrative. Alison marries Stephen, a quiet and fastidiously Presbyterian local handyman who turns out to have a past as a loyalist paramilitary. Stephen’s misdemeanours, which echo the Greysteel massacre, are thus: in the early 1990s, as a fully inducted member of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (the armed wing of the Ulster Defence Association), Stephen enters a rural mid-Ulster bar and kills five customers. Arrested and then convicted, he serves two years before release under the Good Friday Agreement, and it is many years later and under a new name that he meets and marries Alison.
As the facts about Stephen's past emerge while he and Alison are on honeymoon in Rhodes, Liz is on the other side of the world, in New Ulster, an island off Papua New Guinea, where she is presenting a BBC documentary about a new religion, which has sprung up on the island, conflates Christian and non-Christian beliefs and is led by the charismatic but damaged local woman Belef.
The twin conceits established, the book toggles between Alison in Europe facing the awful truth about what her new husband did, and Liz in New Ulster heartened and even intoxicated but also appalled by what she is discovering about Belef and her new religion.
Either of these elements would make a perfectly good novel on their own but by running these two threads in parallel Laird forces us to read between the two and he does this because he wants us to grasp the universal nature of religious practice. As he has it, whether you’re from Ulster or New Ulster, you face the same problems as a human being: one, you hurt others and two, you die, and with both of these it is necessary to make some sort of accommodation and that’s the function of religion.
The two religions in the novel (and by inference all religions) might look different on the surface but they address the same needs common to all people; they help believers deal with their crimes and with their mortality. Obviously, as the world becomes more polarised and fixated on difference it’s become more important than ever to assert that underneath we’re all driven by the same spiritual hunger. I, at any rate, am grateful to this author for arguing this point.
It also fulfils its duty as a corrective to our collective idiocy by reminding us what we've forgotten
Novels of ideas very often fail because, though the rhetoric may be marvellous, their literary virtue is deficient. Happily, this isn’t the case here. Modern Gods is an exceptional work of literature. It also fulfils its duty as a corrective to our collective idiocy by reminding us what we’ve forgotten: at bedrock, it says, we’re all just confused, lonely, yearning, terrified of death and desperate for love. If we’re to flourish as a species, the sooner we relearn this the better; so bravo, Mr Laird, for trying to help us to remember this.
Carlo Gébler teaches creative writing at Trinity College, Dublin. His novel The Innocent of Falkland Road will be published by New Island in the autumn