Considering how long they lasted – from the late 1960s to the late 1990s – there's a surprising lack of fiction devoted to the Northern Ireland Troubles. When novelists write about war, it's the two global conflicts that tend to monopolise, although, more recently, there's been a growth of American fiction dedicated to post-9/11 combat. For the North, though, Bernard MacLaverty's Cal remains the obvious stand-out, but one shouldn't forget Siobhan Dowd's magnificent Bog Child which, although aimed at a younger audience, is one of the best novels devoted to the period.
So it's refreshing to discover a novel by an English writer that explores the subject in a sensitive and insightful fashion. Barney Norris, a playwright whose Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain was one of the standout debuts of 2015, connects two characters, Robert, a former civil servant who acted as a conduit between the IRA and the British government in the years surrounding the Enniskillen bombing, and Kate, his granddaughter, lost in a complex mix of grief and anorexia while negotiating a deeply dysfunctional relationship with her mother.
The novel is set on the day of Robert’s 80th birthday party, when he receives a disturbing phone call informing him that the testimonies recorded on the so-called Boston Tapes might move towards prosecutions. (For those unfamiliar with the term, the Boston Tapes are a series of recordings made in 2001, where both loyalist and republican paramilitaries gave interviews about their involvement in the Troubles for the historical record, on the understanding that these tapes would be kept private and only released after their deaths.) Cue some anxious communications between Irish and British representatives, urging them to reassure nervous parties that no legal action will ensue that might threaten a fragile peace.
Norris juxtaposes Robert’s calm diplomacy with his attempts to forge peace between Kate and her difficult mother, and one of the novel’s strengths lies in his depiction of how, when it comes to conflict, the familial can be just as problematic as the political.
Novels related to anorexia are equally rare, and Kate’s descent into an eating disorder is well portrayed. It’s a regular complaint of mine how little effort young male writers put into their depiction of women, usually presenting them as one of four stereotypes: the slut, the nagging harpy, the virgin who saves the sexually promiscuous man or simply the catalyst for the male protagonist’s actions. Norris is to be commended for writing a female character that is both authentic and complicated. He’s part of a rare breed: a male novelist interested in people, regardless of whether or not they have a penis.
That said, it’s not flawless. One probably shouldn’t criticise a novel for being too bleak – to do so would be to discount the entirety of Scandinavian fiction and invite Karl Ove Knausgård to accept a job as a barman on the Oslo-Copenhagen ferry – but the levels of cheerlessness here can be overwhelming, and one longs for a character to lighten the mood. Ironically, it’s the villain of the piece, Kate’s mother, who fulfils that role, flouncing into the party, refusing to engage with her daughter’s pain and making the most inappropriate remarks. It’s a little light relief in a novel that occasionally makes Beckett feel like PG Wodehouse.
The best parts, however, draw on the tender relationship between grandfather and granddaughter. Throughout the day, they spend little time in each other’s company but remain cognisant of the singular traumas that each is dealing with, existing in a state of loving concern, which makes for a deeply moving portrait.
There's so much going on in Turning for Home that its relative brevity is surprising, and if the many plot strands don't always fulfil their narrative potential, perhaps that's because Norris creates characters with such distinctive inner lives that it's impossible to contain their stories within 270 pages. Had the novel been longer, perhaps more breathing space could have been given to each element of the story.
Nevertheless, readers would do well to make the acquaintance of Barney Norris, who has the potential to become a hugely significant novelist in the decades ahead. And if his second novel is not quite the equal of his first, well, it's hard to think of any writer – with the possible exception of Jane Austen, Salman Rushdie and Paul Murray – whose second book has not proved a difficult read. (Mine was a mess.) My advice? Read this one, then go back to Five Rivers, and look forward to what comes next.
John Boyne's latest novel is The Heart's Invisible Furies (Doubleday)