‘People. Around here some of them are like clouds. Once they clear out of sight, it’s a beautiful day.’
Ithaca by debut novelist Alan McMonagle is an amazing balancing act. It is at once both incredibly sad and incredibly funny. Its dark themes are hidden behind a bombardment of light, jaunty prose. This has to be one of the most original Irish novels that I have read in recent times.
At the heart of the novel is a lonely boy and his single mother. Jason spends his life wandering about his nondescript hometown on the lookout for something. He wants a purpose. He want to feel something, anything. He wants to find his real dad and he wants to find a friend.
He searches for these things amongst gossips, drunks and barflys who ‘if brains were chocolate, between them wouldn’t fill a Smartie.‘ Between McMorrow’s Pub and Rich Hill, lies a whole town of broken men and women struggling to remain upbeat in a downbeat town.
Jason’s mam is an expert in survival in these tough conditions. She navigates guards, bailiffs and landlords through an series of lies, flirtation and avoidance. She just about holds it together to provide a basic life for her son but each bill, each request, each demand chips another piece off her defiant front.
As Jason’s dad continues to be elusive, he finds a companion of sorts in ‘the girl.’ He meets her by the Swamp, a mysterious patch of stagnant water at the back of town. Through her, Jason learns many things and together they share each others secrets while getting up to all kinds of mischief.
As I read Ithaca, it reminded me a lot of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy. The story is so unbelievable that it is in fact believable. They are many boys like Jason who grow up on the fringes of society and learn to deal with neglect the best they can. McMonagle brilliantly gives a voice to these outcasts and sheds a light on the pain they experience but don’t necessarily feel.
The conclusion to this novel is truly heart-breaking as McMonagle expertly pulls back to curtain of imagination to reveal the harsh realities on the fringes of life.
Would I recommend this book to a friend?
Fans of the experimental novel and the works Kevin Barry, Donal Ryan and Lisa McInerney will like this. It has a very Irish spin to it and gives another insight into the broken Ireland that emerged with the demise of the Celtic Tiger.