Books

A choice of first novels: the war in Bosnia, a modern Irish council estate and the private life of Friedrich Engels

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

As all writers know to their cost, first novels are never really first novels. They make their appearance after countless botched attempts at the perfect debut — a debut that always lurks just out of view, but seems tantalisingly easy for everyone else. My first published novel was fifth down the line. It was a line of sad, self-obsessed and achingly self-conscious junk manuscripts that now gather dust in a filing system that has long since lost any recognisable methodology.

Jesse Armstrong, on the other hand, although making his debut in fiction with Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals, is no stranger to writing success. He already has a glittering career as co-author of Peep Show, The Thick of It, In the Loop and Four Lions under his belt. Most people would be satisfied with this, but Armstrong, like any writer worth his salt, has decided to try his hand at a novel. And very good it is too.

Not surprisingly, he has a real flair for comic dialogue. In his tale of the hapless and randy Andrew, a working-class boy who blags his way onto a Ford transit van full of good-hearted lefties on their way to solve the Bosnian war in 1994, he give us an updated version of Evelyn Waugh’s Paul Pennyfeather from Decline and Fall.

Through Andrew’s eyes, Armstrong dissects the well-meaning platitudes of the young, but still allows us to love them. Here is Andrew ruminating on how he got onto the peace bus in the first place:


Was the cellar in Munich full of men sloshing their steins and saying, ‘Yeah sure, whatever, mate. What did he say? Yeah, the fucking Jews, he’s right, you know, mine’s another massive lager,’ who were then very surprised to find themselves, a couple of years later, marching into the Sudetenland and Austria and Yugoslavia?

It’s very funny and very dry — a debut novel that will clearly be the first of many.

Friedrich Engels is viewed by many as the Boswell to Karl Marx’s Dr Johnson. This is not quite fair, as from the beginning their friendship was very much a two-way street. What Engels did have in common with Bozzy, however, was a healthy regard — and need — for the opposite sex. His relationship with the two Burns sisters, Mary and Lizzie, well-informed denizens of working-class Manchester and true members of its Irish diaspora, forms the backbone of Gavin McCrea’s fine novel, Mrs Engels.

The title already is ironic, since Engels, a firm believer that church-and-state-
controlled marriage was a form of class oppression, never married his first partner, Mary. Following her death, he took up with Lizzie (the main subject of the novel) for 15 years, only marrying the latter a few hours before her death in 1878 — a scene touchingly portrayed in the ‘In Paradisum’ postscript.

This is an assured, beautifully written debut, about a woman wiser than her lover perhaps, and slowly growing into herself — reminiscent of Molly Bloom in Ulysses. Eleanor Marx wrote that Lizzie was ‘illiterate and could not read or write, but she was true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet’. Going by this, McCrea describes her perfectly.

Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies gives us another, more contemporary view of the post-crash Irish, and follows five low-life misfits as they struggle against the legacy of Ireland’s paternalistic and prescriptive attitude to family and sex (‘God and his bandits’). McInerney’s prose is unshowy and — a rare thing — largely un-Joycean, and she tells a good story. Her characters lurch from one self-fuelled disaster to another. They are prostitutes, gangsters, drug-dealers, errant schoolboys, inadvertent murderesses — people from the lowest reaches of society who still manage to retain a certain integrity of purpose.

McInerney originally made her name writing a blog, starting in 2006, called ‘Arse End of Ireland’, depicting the realities of working-class life on a council estate in Galway. This experience imbues her novel and gives it life; wisely, she writes about what she knows best, and she gets it right. Her dialogue is realistic and her prose fluent, and though one doesn’t necessarily warm to her characters, one understands them.

'Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals', £11.69, 'Mrs Engels', £13.49 and 'The Glorious Heresies', £13.99 are available from the Spectator Bookshop, Tel: 08430 600033

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