Karl Geary’s debut, Montpelier Parade, was one of my books of the year in 2017, a nuanced and finely crafted story of two lost souls in 1980s Dublin. Shortlisted in the newcomer category at both the Irish Book Awards and the Costas, it was a luminous, skilfully paced unfolding of an illicit relationship, full of tension and tenderness and chance meetings in the suburban seaside location of Monkstown and its environs. On the face of it, Geary’s second novel, Juno Loves Legs, has many of the same qualities and preoccupations: an interest in class divisions, an older Ireland milieu, a searing depiction of poverty, courageous characters hoping to escape their backgrounds, outsiders who find each other against, or perhaps because of, the odds.
In this new book, Geary has made the decision, for much of the narrative, to go for a young narrator. The titular protagonist Juno is 12 years old, the only remaining child of a troubled household, where the father is a useless alcoholic, the mother a hard-working, heartbroken seamstress who gets stiffed for payment by her obnoxious neighbours. In these chapters, which account for over half of the book, there is a lot of hardship and very little light.
Geary imbues his protagonist with a jauntiness and pluck that somewhat work to combat the Angela’s Ashes tone of these sections. Juno is fierce, temperamental, wayward, constantly in trouble at home and school, the kind of character who revels in calling out hypocrisy and injustice, a hint of Francie Brady, minus the insanity: “I think that was the end. They stayed away from me, the other children. There was no one then.”
Unable to change her family’s circumstances, Juno goes about helping a classmate, the quiet, artistic Seán, who she renames Legs. She bullies his bullies, shields him from his religious zealot mother, hatches plans to take down Sister and Father, the cliched Catholic educators who stand in for all the wrongdoings of the Church in old Ireland. It is not that the many instances of corporal punishment in the book feel fabricated – we know these terrible things happened with alarming regularity – rather that their representation in fiction has been done so often, and to greater effect, by writers from John McGahern to Claire Keegan, Edna O’Brien to Pat McCabe, that there is a tired feel to the school scenes in Geary’s novel, which lends itself to misery lit.
It takes Juno longer than the reader to figure out what’s going on, imbuing the closing chapters with memorable pathos: ‘Illness, I saw, even the slow ones, could only be sudden’
The horrors seem to pile up: alcoholism, poverty, beatings, predatory pawnbrokers, awful neighbours, road accidents, death. One bad event bleeds into the next; there is something amiss with the pacing and division of the narrative. There is a lack of specificity with time and place. The first half of the book reads more like Ireland in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the presumably deliberate decision not to ground the action in a particular locale detracts from the story. Nothing happens nowhere, as Elizabeth Bowen wrote.
Aside from the incongruous quotes from Susan Sontag and Tarkovsky that announce Parts Two and Three, things improve significantly in the latter half of the book. Geary moves Juno forward to early adulthood, where she has become destitute, begging on the Ha’penny Bridge, sleeping with men for money. The prose is sharper, the characterisation more vibrant, as with this description of Juno’s life on the street: “I pulled my sleeping bag up over my knees and a while later removed it and then, putting it back, couldn’t decide which was colder. The moisture in the bag had begun to freeze and it wrinkled like crisp packets.”
Misfit buddies from unkind worlds who find salvation in each other has been done before in fiction, but Geary elevates the trope with an original central duo
Elsewhere, the gay scene of 1980s Dublin is related with flair: the burgeoning city centre artist collectives, the carousing in Bartley Dunne’s and the William Tell, the clash of moneyed society and young people who have nothing except their charm and wits. In these spirited sections, Juno and Legs have plenty of both, which allows them to live it up for a while, partying on someone else’s dime. But the highs end, as all highs must. It takes Juno longer than the reader to figure out what’s going on, imbuing the closing chapters with memorable pathos: “Illness, I saw, even the slow ones, could only be sudden.”
Misfit buddies from unkind worlds who find salvation in each other has been done before in fiction, but Geary elevates the trope with an original central duo. Juno’s pursuit of authenticity, her instinct for it, makes her a clear-eyed, oddly compassionate narrator: “They fade, memories, even good ones, the ones we want. I’d practise my favourites, learned as if by rote. But no matter, you end up with memories of memories: you get tar from coal, not diamonds.” Despite all the deprivation she’s experienced, there is a seer-like, ruthlessly pragmatic streak to Juno that leaves the reader hoping she’ll escape the world she’s known from childhood, to survive.