literary journalism

Louise Kennedy’s ‘Trespasses’

Louise Kennedy’s debut novel plunges us into Northern Ireland in 1975 — one of the bloodiest years of the Troubles, despite a ceasefire.

Cushla Lavery is a 24-year-old Catholic primary school teacher living with her mother in a garrison town near Belfast. She sometimes helps her brother out at the family pub, where a “fifty-odd” married man catches her eye. Michael Agnew is one of few Protestant barristers speaking out against the non-jury trials of the Diplock courts and taking cases challenging the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the predominantly Protestant police force. Cushla and Michael embark on an affair — secret except to a group of Michael’s friends, who treat her, “the token Taig”, with condescension.

At the insistence of the headmaster, each morning Cushla’s class of seven-year-olds recounts The News — an inventory of beatings, bombings and shootings taking place terrifyingly close to home.

Cushla takes an unpopular pupil, Davy McGeown, under her wing, and does what she can to help his family. A “mixed marriage”, the McGeowns are harassed in their Protestant council estate. When the father is beaten so badly that he’s left for dead, Cushla worries about the desire for vengeance churning in Davy’s older brother Tommy. When Cushla’s private and professional lives collide in the novel’s climax, the tragedy is no less heart-wrenching for having been written on the wall.

One of the standout stories in Kennedy’s debut short story collection, The End of the World is a Cul-de-Sac (2021), also features the Troubles. Shortlisted for the 2019 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, “In Silhouette” depicts a woman haunted by her brother’s involvement with one of the “disappeared” — Irish Catholics believed to have been abducted and killed by Republicans.

If the pervading tenor of Kennedy’s stories is one of resignation, Trespasses is all the more moving for allowing its protagonists to hope. Just as Cushla tries to broker peace in the classroom and her brother maintains a fragile harmony at the pub, Michael fights for justice within a partisan legal system.

Trespasses is historical fiction at its finest, allowing readers to experience past events via fictional characters living through them…

Read the full review online at the Financial Times

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