#AW80Books: Ruin and Redemption – Lisa McInerney’s ‘The Glorious Heresies’

Having spent some time lolling about in a reading torpor, I had begun to suspect that I had either totally lost my ability to concentrate or, worse, fallen out of love with fiction. At times like these, extreme measures are called for. I needed a book that would grab me by the scruff of the neck, demand my every waking moment’s attention and then spit me out the other side, blinking into the daylight, wondering ‘What the hell happened there?’

Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies is such a novel, and thanks to Pembrokeshire’s Library service, I was able to inject some lifeblood and adrenaline to my reading, in my hour of greatest need. Set in Cork, The Glorious Heresies also qualifies as another stop on our ‘Around the World in 80 Books’ Reading challenge.  (You can see where we’ve ‘traveled’ so far here).

The novel follows the lives of various characters struggling to scrape by in the dark underbelly of the city. Grabbing the first heavy object to hand when surprised by an intruder, Maureen finds herself with a dead body on the kitchen floor and a bloody ‘holy relic’ in her hands. She calls her son, Jimmy, a gangster from the upper echelons of Cork’s criminal fraternity. Luckily for her,  this isn’t the first time he’s had to arrange a clean up of this sort – in his line of work it comes with the territory.

Cork City isn’t going to notice the first brave steps of a resolute little man. The city runs on the macro: traffic jams, All-Ireland finals, drug busts, general elections. Shit to complain about: the economy, the Dáil, whatever shaving of Ireland’s integrity they were auctioning off to mainland Europe this week.                                                          But Monday lunchtime was the whole world to one new man, and probably a thousand more besides, people who spent those couple of hours getting promotions or pregnancy tests or keys to their brand-new second-hand cars. There were people dying, too. That’s the way of the city: one new man to take the place of another, bleeding out on a polished kitchen floor.

Due to his mother’s involvement, Jimmy doesn’t entrust the clean up to his usual crew, but enlists the help of Tony, an old pal who is down on his luck. Left a widower and father to six children after the death of his wife, Tony has since sought consolation in the bottle and been free with his fists with his oldest son, Ryan. Trusting Tony to sort out the mess proves to have been a risky strategy,  and when the intruder’s erstwhile girlfriend, Georgie tries to trace him, Jimmy gets jittery and tries to make Tony pay for his botched job.

z glorious heresies

As the plot unfolds we are drawn into the lives of Tony’s son, Ryan and his girlfriend Karine. Ryan’s childhood experiences of loss and violence have had a huge impact on him, leaving him vulnerable to further abuse from those around and switching his trajectory from a path of future prospects to a life of crime. His relationship with Karine is a breath-takingly realistic evocation of the passion and instability of first love. We also get to know Georgie better, and how she became enmeshed in a vicious circle of prostitution and drugs. While the novel contains more gangsters than you could shake a stick at, it is Tony and Ryan’s neighbour, the middle-aged, evil, opportunistic busybody, Tara Duane, that will stay with me as one of the most vividly drawn monsters I have ever seen in print.

Despite the relentless misery of many of the characters’ situations, The Glorious Heresies is, surprisingly, not a depressing novel. It is heart-wrenching in places, and I cared desperately about many of the characters, but the dark comedy that peppers the novel provides balance and relieves the overwhelming sense of helplessness. The writing is dizzying – sharp and spiky prose, and the dialogue rolled off the page as speech heard rather than words read.

Ultimately, the novel is filled with hope. After facing the grim realities of life lived at the cruddiest edge of humanity, McInerney reminds us that if we look hard enough we just might find the odd glint of goodness gleaming amidst all the grime and gravel.