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Remembrance Sunday by Darragh McKeon: Brilliant fictional study of the legacy of trauma

It has been nine years since McKeon’s debut novel but the wait was worth it for this disturbing, intensely moving exploration of the Troubles and their legacy

Darragh McKeon left a long gap following the publication of his highly acclaimed debut novel in 2014. Photograph: Artem Dmitriev
Remembrance Sunday
Remembrance Sunday
Author: Darragh McKeon
ISBN-13: 9781844886234
Publisher: Sandycove
Guideline Price: £18.99

“What’s your name, son?” A seemingly innocuous inquiry, unless the setting is Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Simon Hanlon, an expat living in New York, is many decades and thousands of miles from the conflict but still finds himself plagued by the question, which appears as a chilling refrain throughout Darragh McKeon’s exceptional new novel. A beautifully crafted story about the legacy of trauma, Remembrance Sunday is a reminder, in this anniversary year of the Belfast Agreement, not just of the lives that were lost during the Troubles, but of those that were stunted or derailed. As Philip Larkin said in Aubade: An only life can take so long to climb/ Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never...

Simon isn’t just haunted by his memories. The novel opens with him in hospital after a epileptic seizure, his first in 30 years, brought on by a chance encounter with a Dutch woman, Esther, who spent a summer in Simon’s hometown of Lisnarick, Fermanagh, when he was 14. The seizure is accompanied by an aura, a feeling of premonition before it lands, another kind of haunting. Simon understands the science behind the seizures, how they affect various parts of the brain – “amygdala (the Greek for ‘almond’) and part of the adjacent hippocampus (’seahorse’)” – but has yet to reckon with their meaning.

McKeon’s precise, eloquent style is suited to the subject matter. His interrogation of memory, specifically of its fallibility, is insightful and nuanced. Simon can’t remember who asked him the question above, only that the man has become “the most influential person in my life”. His current circumstances support this view. A short marriage to a French woman, Camille, has ended badly. He is adrift in the city, without family or roots to ground him. Meeting Esther acts as a catalyst for change, and a catapult back to the past.

In narrative terms, this means revisiting the summer of 1987 in a bid to understand where his life went wrong. The only child of a Catholic father and Protestant mother, Simon felt cast into the role of outsider growing up: “In a polarized time, a tribal time, I straddled both sides, which of course meant that I belonged to neither.” Outsiders, as we know, make great narrators.

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McKeon impressively conjures the era, the moment, the wider political landscape, capturing the ways in which history imprints itself upon hearts and minds, reverberating over time

Simon is an observer, a character on the periphery in more ways than one. Whether the recollections are personal or political, the details are considered. “She had that alert quality about her that meant I shouldn’t approach,” he says of his wife, as if watching her from behind a sheet of glass.

In the same exacting style, he recounts the events of Remembrance Sunday 1987, the IRA bomb that killed 11 people, 10 civilians and a police officer: “As it happened, no active members of the military were harmed… It was a slaughter. And it could have been even worse. Another bomb was planted in Tullyhommon – about fifteen miles away.”

McKeon impressively conjures the era, the moment, the wider political landscape, capturing the ways in which history imprints itself upon hearts and minds, reverberating over time. “Protest is when I say I don’t like this,” a character notes later in the book. “Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like.” In a feat of virtuosic narration and structure, the particulars of which are best discovered within the text itself, McKeon manages to give a broad, empathetic view of the conflict. The reader comes to understand the character arc of a freedom fighter, or terrorist, depending on your sympathies.

The imaginative storytelling and fine prose of Remembrance Sunday puts McKeon in the big leagues: Roddy Doyle’s brilliant novel Smile, Sebastian Barry’s latest Old God’s Time,

Among the many realistic and vividly drawn scenes is a magnificent set piece of British soldiers raiding a house of civilians in the middle of the night. It makes the earlier epigraph from Brian Keenan’s memoir, An Evil Cradling, seem alarmingly fitting: “How much of him is in me, and how much of me is in him?”

The imaginative storytelling and fine prose of Remembrance Sunday puts McKeon in the big leagues: Roddy Doyle’s brilliant Smile, Sebastian Barry’s latest Old God’s Time, both of which are also about the long reach of traumatic events. Another touchstone is Greg Baxter’s Munich Airport, a quietly devastating, largely retrospective narrative loaded with profound moments.

McKeon’s debut novel, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, was published in 2014 to widespread international acclaim and was translated into nine languages. A New York Times Editors’ Choice, in France it won the Lire Prize for Best International Debut. From the midlands originally, McKeon lived for a time in New York and has recently moved to the west of Ireland.

The nine-year wait for this second novel has been worth it. Remembrance Sunday is a disturbing, intensely moving read about the legacy of sectarian violence. History records the wins and losses, but the body keeps the score.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts