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The Coast Road by Alan Murrin: small town shenanigans

Everyone knows everyone else’s business in this engrossing debut novel

Alan Murrin, author of The Coast Road, switches with remarkable ease between characters' perspectives
The Coast Road
The Coast Road
Author: Alan Murrin
ISBN-13: 9781526663702
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £16.99

The Desperate Housewives of Donegal could be an alternative title for Alan Murrin’s debut novel, The Coast Road. Packed with shenanigans – affairs, separations, deaths, priests and politics – the narrative unfolds in a gossipy rush that is well suited to the small town milieu. But Murrin attends to a different kind of desperation too, the real and heartbreaking lack of agency for women in difficult, unsatisfying marriages in 20th century Ireland. This is what elevates his novel, bringing the lives of his distinctive female characters into high definition.

Set in the fictional coastal community of Ardglas towards the end of 1994, against the backdrop of an upcoming referendum on divorce (that in reality passed by less than 1 per cent), The Coast Road is a polyphonic narrative encompassing many of the town’s voices but focusing on three women: Izzy Keaveny, the wife of local politician James; Colette Crowley, a poet returned to Ardglas in disgrace after a failed affair; and Dolores Mullen, mother of four and wife to philandering plumber Donal.

Murrin switches with remarkable ease between the perspectives, at home in the voice of a bohemian poet as he is a priest or plumber. This fluid narrative style makes for an engrossing read and it’s clear to see why his debut was part of a five-way auction, ultimately won by Bloomsbury. If there was a spectrum starting with Maeve Binchy and ending with Donal Ryan, Murrin would be somewhere in the middle, which is to say, he has written a gripping character-driven novel that is accessible and literary in style.

A freelance writer for The Irish Times, Times Literary Supplement and Spectator, he won the Bournemouth Writing Prize for his short story The Wake in 2021, which went on to be shortlisted for short story of the year at the Irish Book Awards. As a work-in-progress, The Coast Road was shortlisted for the PFD Queer Fiction Prize and longlisted for the Caledonia New Novel Award.


The book opens with a prologue, flashing forward to 1995 and a murder in the village as a big shiny hook, the artifice of which is further highlighted by a repetition of the scene towards the end. Murrin doesn’t need the prologue – his characterisation and prose are strong enough to naturally involve the reader. The claustrophobia of provincial life comes through in the details, the fact that everyone knows everyone else’s business, and that new arrivals to the town are feared and distrusted.

A unifying theme is the suffering of women in this stifling environment. Colette, on returning to the village to reconnect with her sons, finds a community unwilling to forgive: “To have been dismissed by her son so violently, and for that to simply be the shape of things – she felt more foolish for being surprised.” Dolores condones her husband’s many infidelities because she fears being a single mother. Izzy is told by a sympathetic priest that her hopes of running her own business come second to the more important job of providing a good home for her husband and children.

Though we are decades on from the 1990s, this is somehow still timely subject matter, the recent referendum on article 41.2 comes to mind. As Izzy puts it to her husband in her succinct, no-nonsense way: “I don’t doubt that if I had your life, I’d be satisfied with it. You have every single one of your needs met.” A spirited woman and upstanding member of the community, she emerges as the novel’s central character who connects the various subplots, as she experiences and calls out the injustices and inequalities that threaten the livelihoods and lives of women.

In the second half of The Coast Road, with a sense of impending tragedy, the narrative tends more towards drama than tension. Dialogue can at times read like soap opera, with plenty of arguments and grandstanding, but overall Murrin handles the more melodramatic elements well, resulting in a pleasing escalation of events. Even in the book’s climactic scenes his interest in and observations on the human condition are to the fore.

Ultimately this is a writer concerned with actions and consequences, how characters behave in their worst moments, whether they look to comfort or blame those around them. In a moving closing scene, when so much has been lost, Izzy passes on her wisdom to the next generation, hoping for change: “You’ll realise that what you thought was important meant nothing, and the only things you’ll regret are the times when you were cruel or unkind or ungenerous towards another person, or when you allowed your judgments to get in the way of helping them.”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

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