The Effect of Her, by Gerard Stembridge
The ‘Scrap Saturday’ writer returns to political satire for his fourth novel
The Effect of Her
Old Street Publishing
Gerard Stembridge’s work as screenwriter and novelist is well known to Irish audiences. His brilliant scripting of Ordinary Decent Criminal set the bar for screenwriting, although Stembridge is perhaps more closely identified with his broadcast work, especially the memorable political lampooning of Scrap Saturday, written with the late Dermot Morgan.
In The Effect of Her, his fourth novel, Stembridge is writing in full political-satire mode once again and also attempting to encapsulate an Irish zeitgeist. This book is meant to do for the 1970s what his novel Unspoken did for the 1960s, with chapters taking place in each year of the decade. His enigmatic title derives from a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which also serves as an unlikely epigraph. (It is worth recalling that Eliot’s great novel bears the subtitle A Study of Provincial Life.)
The literary connection signals one of the book’s recurring strands. Joyce and Myles, along with Solzhenitsyn, Waugh and others, are quoted and analysed. A thirst for challenging books and their lingering effect distinguishes many of the book’s teenage or young adult characters. This alone would set the period apart from today’s world, but somehow the result, rather than making the 1970s come alive, seems more like the opening of a time capsule.
Stembridge’s creative undertaking is far more complex than its bright turquoise and orange cover might suggest.
The author uses the familiar device of introducing three parallel and eventually connecting plots. One limns the apparent downfall and resurrection of a very recognisable cabinet minister, CJ; another tracks the romance between the fiery redheaded journalist Mags Perry and Michael Liston, CJ’s right-hand man; the third appears in the form of the seemingly unrelated, and lacklustre, lives of Francis and Marion Strong, two of Ann and Fonzie Strong’s five children. The Strong family and Liston are among the recycled characters from Stembridge’s earlier fiction and, like the author, hail from Limerick. These storylines will eventually merge in a gay coming-of-age tale, one of the many relationships that form and re-form throughout the 10 years that pass in these pages.
The Effect of Her relates, in nonfictionalised detail, the social and political events that rocked Ireland in the 1970s, including the arms trial and the rise of the Irish women’s liberation movement, including Garret FitzGerald’s unscheduled appearance on The Late Late Show to challenge some of the movement’s assertions. (The FitzGerald character is archly drawn: he is referred to only as “Dr Garret FitzGerald”, with his interior monologues ending in exclamation points, as though he suffers from an excess of eureka moments.)
Stembridge loads his narrative with one headline story after another, especially those about sex, political scandal, violence and rock’n’roll: the media frenzy surrounding the contraceptive train to Belfast; Liam Cosgrave voting against his own government on the contraception bill; the Herrema kidnapping; the shock of Bloody Sunday and the Munich and Ewart-Biggs assassinations; and the opening of Mount Temple comprehensive school, cradle of U2.
His teenage boys are fixated on listening to Radio Luxembourg and on growing their hair as long as possible; his teenage girls, and their mothers, are having their collective consciousness doggedly raised. With its additional emphasis on pop music and local bands, the cut and colour of their trendy clothes and shoes and what passed for fashionable drinks and innovative cuisine, The Effect of Her is a retro-chic treasure trove.
The more overtly political elements of the narrative are sharply in focus, with some of the acerbic comedy that made Scrap Saturday great. Stembridge is adept at laying bare middle-aged male insecurity, with all its compensatory pomposity and competitiveness. Little effort is made to turn raw facts into a sustained fiction, although he does grant his characters the occasional ruminating moment, which can only be imaginative. Otherwise, large sections of the book read as though taken from newspaper accounts of the day.
Herein may lie part of the trouble at the heart of this book: the fictionalised and factual segments of The Effect of Her demonstrate different levels of skill and don’t necessarily mesh into a coherent style. Stembridge has a propensity to tell us, and then tell us again, when we should be shown instead. There is too much connective tissue in these pages, which no doubt works better in a screenplay.
Period detail, such as a Tupperware house party, adds authenticity and colour, but it is far too easy to bog a book down in mundane detail. This is a shame, as some of the writing is compelling, especially the interleaved segments towards the end of the novel in which examples of the patriarchal control of family planning by male legislators and doctors is paralleled with male dominance and abuse within the home.
Stembridge is also capable of creating viable characters. He does innocence very convincingly, and his teenagers can be heartbreaking. We cheer for Francis Strong when he grows up and breaks free of the constraints of a home and school that have failed to nurture him. But we also care about Mags Perry in her search for happiness after a failed marriage. Even Michael Liston, not an essentially likeable figure, engages our sympathies at times. Stembridge’s experimental representation of the private and public Terry Keane (here Ann Teresa and Terry), while not as successful, operates within a layer of complexity that newspaper headlines and gossip columns can’t reveal.
The Effect of Her will be a good summer read, especially among readers for whom the music of what happened in the 1970s is the soundtrack of their lives.
Christina Hunt Mahony is a research associate in the school of English, Trinity College Dublin, and editor of Out of History: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry.