Book reviews: Children Of The Troubles should be widely read, its lessons committed to memory
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Children of the Troubles by Joe Duffy and Freya McClements is published by Hachette Books Ireland, priced £24.99
PATRICK Rooney would have been 59 or maybe 60 now, a father possibly, perhaps a grandfather. Or perhaps not; his teacher said that he wanted to be a priest. Either way, a decent man, in all likelihood, still looked up to by his younger siblings. He was the first child to die in the Troubles, hit by a bullet fired from a machine gun mounted on an RUC armoured car as he climbed the stairs to bed, later than usual because there had been a good film on TV. That was August 1969, in Belfast. The last child killed was Michael McIlveen, a 15-year-old boy who was chased by a gang through Ballymena on his way home from the pictures and beaten with a baseball bat. That was May 2006. These are just two of the 186 children who died as a result of the Troubles. Boys and girls, Catholics and Protestants, in Northern Ireland, the Republic, Britain, West Germany, by bombs, bullets, and baseball bats. This book tells the story of each child, their brief lives and their tragic deaths, casting timeless shadows across families and communities. Although told in chronological order, you can open the book at any page and be forced into a compulsion to read. The details may sometimes be banal – he loved football, she loved fish and chips – but each record of stolen innocence is unique and extraordinary. Reading Children of the Troubles gives a sensation of a steady, rhythmic, incessant pounding, but the feeling of loss is never numbed, only sharpened with each story. With photographs and essays to illustrate the time covered, and each year introduced with a list of events from that time (Charles Love was killed the year Home Alone was a box-office smash), the book is written with clarity, precision, and cold-eyed compassion. Children of the Troubles, in whose foreword former president Mary McAleese describes the revised figure of 186 child deaths as "truly shocking", acknowledges its debt to the definitive Lost Lives. Like that, it is a book that should be in every classroom and library, its lessons committed to memory, and put into practice.
Pursuit by Joyce Carol Oates is published in hardback by Head of Zeus, priced £18.99 (ebook £5.03)
JOYCE Carol Oates is back on familiar territory, pitting toxic masculinity against a trembling, fragile female protagonist in this gripping and gruesome novel, form the legendarily prolific novelist. It's a slim volume, just a couple of hundred pages long, but it's packed with the unrelenting, won't-let-go intensity that characterises all of Oates's work. Delicate, mysterious Abby has only been married for a day when she suffers horrendous injuries after stepping into the path of a bus. What made her do it? New husband, devout Christian, Willem, is determined to find out. As Abby slowly recovers, she recalls her fractured childhood and the truth behind the disappearance of her parents when she was five years old is gradually revealed in all its nightmarish horror. Fans will enjoy this book, and if you've never read anything by her before, it is a good introduction to the strange, unique landscape that is Oatesland.
The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger is published in hardback by Headline Review, priced £18.99 (ebook £7.99)
WRITTEN in the wake of the college admissions scandal that saw rich, connected parents across the United States buying their kids into college, The Gifted School is both relevant and deeply relatable. Focused on a seventh grade, slightly less extreme, version of events, when an exclusive school opens in the privileged community of Crystal, Colorado, four friends will do anything to guarantee their kids a spot. The novel flits between six main narratives, each person hiding a secret. Although the secrets are not as biting as you would hope, they are very human. However, Holsinger stumbles by not giving a voice to all four friends, with some feeling like they only exist to advance the plot rather than providing any real insight into events. The Gifted School is an absorbing novel, if a bit predictable at times. Yet it remains a race through the pages to reach a sweet, satisfactory conclusion.
Grand Union by Zadie Smith is published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton, priced £20 (ebook £20)
WITH all of Zadie Smith's work, it's hard not to appreciate it, to recognise its brilliance and importance. However, that doesn't necessarily mean every carefully constructed sentence is totally enjoyable. And so, this selection of short stories offers an array of moments – ones of escape and humour (Escape From New York), others of devastation and loss, of unfairness and inequality (Miss Adele Amongst The Corsets), danger and everyday ordinariness (Kelso Deconstructed). Some stories, you're in the middle of them before you have any idea what is going on (Meet The President!), many carry a creeping sense of dread that makes you want to skip to the next tale. Grand Union, as a collection, doesn't always feel coherent (perhaps because some are brand new stories, others published previously). While Smith's sharpness is fully intact, it's quite hard to get stuck in.