False Dawns and Regressions

by Archie Cornish

Michael Magee, Close to Home
Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, ISBN 9780241582978, £14.99

Rachel Connolly, Lazy City
Canongate 288pp, ISBN 9781838859664, £16.99

Sean, protagonist of Michael Magee’s Close to Home, is looking for his father. His mother brought him up in west Belfast after his dad left to start a new family in the countryside. Having tracked him down, Sean runs some searches (‘I looked it up on maps’). But the house he narrows down to is impenetrable by the Street View car:

The only thing I could think to do was to drag and drop the yellow man on to every road around the house, but there was no getting at it, the camera wasn’t powerful enough…

I laughed when I read this passage, because I had been doing the same: dropping the yellow man in the neighbourhoods where Close To Home plays out: Poleglass, Dunmurry, Milltown. Like most big cities in these islands, Belfast presents a stark socio-economic divergence between its districts. But its other divisions, of national identity and political allegiance, sharpened and preserved by Northern Ireland´s conflict, compound the sense of mutual alienation. It’s a city where most people have their own off-limits areas, even as they try to figure one another out — a place in which it’s temptingly easy to make assumptions about people, but difficult to get to know them properly. Lots of recent Belfast fiction addresses the struggle, in these conditions, to balance two imperatives: finding yourself, and maintaining your oldest ties.

Sean has returned from undergraduate study in Liverpool; back home, he scrapes by with his friend Ryan, rinsing the supermarket with some well-honed tricks at the self-checkout. They work in nightclubs, but Sean has just taken a swing at a stuck-up guy at a house party, and now must do community service. (Violence is out of character for Sean, whose scepticism towards authority is more restrained than the system assumes: ‘tell the teacher to shove his Bunsen burner up his hole and everyone thinks you can scrap like fuck’.)

Sean combines club shifts with cold days of penitent labour in Milltown Cemetery, hallowed Republican ground; he mixes nights out with his mates and family time with his shattered mother and troubled brother Anthony. Meanwhile he reignites his friendship with his old flame, Mairéad. They keep each other company, get drunk and occasionally have sex. They ended things before they left for university and now Mairéad is preparing to leave again, to Berlin. Sean lacks an equivalent plan, but keeps writing, and starts to break uncertainly into Belfast’s literary scene. Magee’s narration seems reluctant to commit fully to one of these parallel threads. But this reluctance allows the messy and provisional quality of life in the early twenties — the tangle of relationships and obligations, the false dawns and regressions — to emerge.

Close to Home’s reviewers have claimed that no one else is doing this, and made comparisons with Shuggie Bain. While it’s unwise to exclude other working-class voices in contemporary Northern Irish fiction, there’s a distinctiveness to Magee’s kitchen-sink realist depiction of a beleaguered community from a young masculine perspective. And the nature of the trauma, and the quality of its legacy, differ from Douglas Stuart’s Glasgow. The parents in this novel are haunted not by deindustrialisation but the long shadow of the conflict: men who sleep with hammers by the bed, and lock themselves in bathrooms to cry; women who pick up the pieces. Collective labour is a distant rather than recent memory. It’s on community service, in a graveyard, that Sean comes closest to a tired stereotype of working-class existence. Otherwise, his economic situation is precarious in a particularly contemporary manner: a degree that feels useless; a series of service and hospitality jobs, with zero security or workplace solidarity. It’s 2013, and though the constitutional ructions inflicted by Brexit are far off (liberal Britain mostly ignored Northern Ireland before 2016, and still pays it hardly any attention), the socio-economic situation feels bleak.

Sentences are thinly textured but precise, sparsely evoking a juxtaposition of wild excess and background austerity. Sean progresses from his brother’s friend Marty’s flat in Glasvey (‘the few dishes he had — one big plate, one small plate, and a bowl — were arranged neatly on the dishrack’) to the Laurel Glen, where Anthony, on a mad one, creates chaos; at seven that morning Sean opens a picture to see a coked-up Marty ‘in his trunks, shadow-boxing in the middle of his living-room’. Magee very deftly captures the dynamics of masculine friendship, its comically random spurts of sincere feeling, frequently masked in frustrated anger but irreducible to it. On a farewell rager for Ryan, heading to Australia, Sean’s friend Finty stares at a picture of a woman who might be appearing later, with her ‘unreal arse’ — ‘not unreal as in class, unreal as in it didn’t look real’; ‘breaks my heart’, Finty abruptly exclaims.

Between these carefully bathetic sentences, however, the novel achieves a subtle but expansive poignancy, especially in its beautifully handled cadences. One chapter ends with Mairéad on Sean’s sofa, silence hanging ‘like curtains’ around her as she refuses to answer questions about her own fragile circumstances; another leaves Sean holding her dress (‘short and black and smelled like cinnamon’) to his face. He remembers learning, as a child, about the terrible suffering his father has inflicted on Anthony – retreating to his room to play Metal Gear Solid, until Anthony joins him, watching in silence and eventually remarking, as the chapter’s concludes, ‘you’re good at this’. As the story moves towards its end Sean sets himself up in a flat among the students; he and Anthony, with their contrasting familiarities, help each other. Friendship with Mairéad seems set to endure at a more literal kind of long distance. The conflict’s traumatic legacy and the atomising force of present precarity are constantly threatening to erode human connections. Withstanding such erosions, however, these intensely moving relationships prove themselves truly strong.


Rachel Connolly’s debut novel, Lazy City, tells the story of another Belfast homecoming. Erin works as an au pair for a wealthy family in a leafy part of town — a few miles from Sean’s Poleglass, but a world away. She spends her evening drinking with her friend Declan and wondering what she’ll do next. Erin’s return is tenser than it might be for an average Northern Irish student dropping out of university in London and retreating to Belfast. Her best friend and flatmate, Kate, has died suddenly, and in that absence student life feels unsustainable. Erin’s mother neglects to show her much love, chucking her out of the house but also subjecting her to a strange kind of surveillance. Her upbringing was shadowed by abuse, itself underscored by the stresses of the conflict.

The novel describes two simultaneous romantic entanglements: with Matt, an American academic visiting Belfast and nursing vague notions of writing his own fiction; and with Mikey, her ex-boyfriend, a guy who floats through easily and whose brother, also called Matt, parties too hard. One of the pleasures of Lazy City is its refusal to align these various dilemmas — staying at home or moving back to London; sleeping with the American visitor or the teenage flame — neatly on a psychological scale between the poles of confronting problems and running from them.

Connolly works as a freelance journalist and is the author of several essays about contemporary culture and technology, which perceptively analyse the strangeness of our social norms. She also writes a regular Substack, and some of her posts read like a ‘behind-the-scenes’ of the essays, voicing her thought process in trying to understand an aspect of social behaviour. Often her arguments entertain a sweepingly unsparing thesis before rejecting it and insisting that things, and people, are in reality more complex.

Erin narrates the novel, and her in-between position produces a taut, austerely detached prose. Occasionally, in the plainest descriptive passages, its observational accuracy comes at the price of slight woodenness. Erin notices, and thinks about, how everyone appears: out drinking with Declan’s art school mates, she invites Mikey, and he turns up in a white t-shirt; Erin notes its ‘thick hem’ with approval, and reckons ‘he has done it on purpose’. At its best her voice achieves the revelatory crispness of Connolly’s essays, and is alive to the comic absurdities lurking in contemporary hedonism: the art school gang do lines of coke on ‘the values and culture annual for a law firm’.

On Christmas morning Erin wakes before Matt: ‘I watch his face. His mouth opens slightly and closes again. His breath catches and he splutters, but doesn’t wake’. Her naturalism, plain and meticulous, permits only occasional figures of speech, but this concentrates their poetic power. Similes are startlingly depersonalising: Erin’s mother appears in the front door’s glass ‘swelling like an ink blot as she approaches’; her mouth, after a heavy night, feels ‘dry as unvarnished wood’. Sometimes, in reverse, the inanimate is uncannily personified: grass is ‘curled over and grey with frost. . . as if it were wearing hair gel’.

All this tonal detachment can seem aloof, and these days people have plenty to say — often imprecisely — about the aloofness of novels narrated and written by women. It‘s true that much contemporary fiction adopts a distant, drifting first-person perspective, the kind of stance which has often suited the short story in various traditions, but now proliferates in the novel. Precarity makes young adults like Erin and Magee’s Sean into outsiders, but the drifting perspective might also have technological roots. We live most of the time in two places, in the world and on our phones; phones have shaped for us the default mode of knee-jerk, superficial interpretation of other people. Being drunk, or high, might seem the opposite of this withdrawn state, but it also can involve a loss of presence. In her intoxication Erin observes things happening as if to someone else.

Yet the narration avoids the monotony which aloofness risks, for two reasons. The tendency of Connolly’s essays to reject sweeping simplifications becomes, in Erin, a judicious and hard-edged generosity. ‘You think I don’t have any feelings’, says Matt (second Matt, Mikey’s brother) towards the book’s end. But this isn’t what Erin thinks: she is interested in Matt, and refuses to write him off. Erin proves herself immune to these kinds of lazy generalisations, even as they tempt her, and even as her two simultaneous lovers let her down.

What’s more, Erin is suffering terrible grief, of a form — the loss of a close friend — whose severity our culture is dreadful at acknowledging. In the novel’s brightest episode, though the brightness is tinged with pain, Erin remembers a trip to Brighton with Kate, a comic quest in search of a man who turns out to be a fantasy; of collapsing into hysterics together after they escape the party. Without Kate Erin has no one to collapse or escape into. Instead she talks to God — or to painted crucifixes — in a series of empty Catholic churches, and the pathos of her quietly desperate prayers (‘Forgive me, Father, for being so distrustful of people’) reveal the acute pain of the grief buried in her punchdrunk disinterest.

Denying Mikey or Matt (the American) any transformative power, Lazy City makes room for Kate, and thus makes metaphorical the precarious state which Magee depicts so accurately. Bereft of the kind of friend she could share her life with, Erin feels an emotional version of the powerlessness and exposure Magee’s Sean experiences when he’s broke. The older, more distanced friendships get her through, but their baggage and wariness and distance leave her longing for the kind of close, confessional connection she has lost. It’s this longing, diffused through the novel, which perfectly balances its detachment.