North and South

by Jude Cook

Annemarie Neary, Siren, Hutchinson 336pp, £12.99 ISBN 9780091959272
Anthony Cartwright, Iron Towns, Serpent’s Tail 320pp £12.99 ISBN 9781781255384

The politically engaged novel is becoming something of an endangered species, with only a few outstanding recent examples springing to mind. Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 (2016), and Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This (2015) provided exceptional analyses of how capitalism and neoliberalism lost their way, while Lionel Shriver’s scorching satire on American greed, The Mandibles, promises to be one of 2016’s highlights. Yet by and large, books set in, say, the post-industrial Midlands, or 1970s Belfast, are thin on the ground. So when two engagé novels set in just these locations come along at once, it’s particularly pleasurable. Writing that addresses modernity in all its bewildering complexity will always take more risks than the escapist melodramas that make up much contemporary fiction – and will often reap greater rewards.

Anthony Cartwright’s ambitious and involving fourth book, Iron Towns, certainly takes these risks, and all the prizes too. By following four disparate lives, and the history of one potent location, he provides a kaleidoscopic picture of how things in the fictional Midlands district of Iron Towns became so desperate, so quickly. Back in the 1990s, promising footballers Liam and Mark, along with their friend Goldie Ahmed and Liam’s girlfriend, Dee Dee, had dreams of making it big via the traditional working-class escape routes of sport and pop music. Two decades later, their lives, and the rusting machinery of the Iron Towns, lie shattered. Their stories are told in juxtaposed episodes that weave a patchwork quilt of a novel, depicting a decimated industrial and landscape, where ‘walls fall slowly and roofs sag, a slow-motion catastrophe . . . a long slow drift into silence.’

That Cartwright manages to integrate all this while boldly attempting to give us echoes of deep history – from Roman occupation, to a pastoral, pre-mercantile era when the land was farmed – make the novel even more startling. Comparisons with Jim Crace’s Harvest (2014) or Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (2015) are valid, both being novels where the palimpsest of the English countryside refuses to keep its secrets. The book’s eponymous Iron Towns once sat at the manufacturing centre of the country; here they stand in for the Black Country locale of Cartwright’s three previous novels. This time around, his decision to opt for a fictional backdrop allows him a freer, more penetrating and concentrated examination of the social malaises under his microscope. In this respect, the book more resembles the 19th-century Condition of England novels, such as North and South, or Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1850), rather than the work of David Peace, someone with whom Cartwright is often compared. Gaskell’s Milton was a thinly disguised Manchester, and avoiding naming a real city allowed her to make North and South’s polemic universal. The same is true for Iron Towns, which is essentially set in the Dudley Cartwright knows so well. The archetypal Social Problem novel dissects the impact of industrialisation on working-class communities, and Iron Towns continues this tradition.

In this instance, the social problems are manifold: crime, racism, unemployment, poverty, and the most insidious and unexpected of all, ennui. A sense of creeping despair and boredom manifests itself most strongly in the book’s hero, Liam Corwen, a former star of Irontowns FC, now playing out his contract; a ‘heartbroken absent dad, failed husband’ too. He’s also a borderline alcoholic, at one point switching to white wine, with the far-from-wise rationale that ‘George Best drank white wine near the end,’ while observing that Arsenal captain Tony Adams ‘sometimes went on pissed.’ Cartwright seems drawn to tales of flamboyant failures, especially promising sportsmen (one thinks of Heartland’s Rob Catesby). Liam’s story is heartbreaking, though not without bleak comedy. He ‘holds the record for the shortest ever international career; less than a minute as an England substitute when he was eighteen.’ Later, we’re told, ‘The giant cut-out, Liam twenty-feet tall and arms folded, has disappeared since his driving ban.’ Now he’s being led out to pasture, covered in tattoos of the great players, estranged from his Finnish wife, ‘ex-underwear model’ Greta, and son, Jari. Indeed, the glittering cleanliness of the Finnish fjords provides a grim contrast to the dilapidation of Iron Towns; offering Liam an illusory chance of escape. His friend Mark Fala was once a thrusting young player too, a striker who ‘got offered adverts, a boot deal’. But now Mark has ‘not a pot to piss in’, while their cohort Goldie is in jail after losing himself to crime and the local Bullet Crew Gang. The women in the book don’t fare much better. Dee Dee, once a backing singer for prominent 90s indie bands, now works behind a bar. And we hear of ‘The Sadlers . . . a family, where it was the women who used to go to prison.’ With much of the novel’s action centring around the Anvil Yards football ground, it’s Liam and his fall that fascinates. At times, he threatens to become a mythical figure of young promise gone to seed, a Jake LaMotta – he has the scale and pathos, the capacity to make us feel his fate could be ours, given different circumstances. We watch his implosion in excruciating close-up, describing ‘the years when everything went wrong for them.’ Later, ‘when he played away from home now, Liam was singled out with braying donkey noises.’ The book’s narrative ace is that Cartwright defers the reasons for Liam’s downfall – and the fate of the others – to very late in the story.

Despite the focus on personal tragedy, what lingers most potently after finishing the novel are its lyrical depictions of a ravaged landscape. Ironport, with its ‘vacant docks and rusting cranes’, and ‘Anvil Yards, a maze of ancient works and roofless brick factory buildings’ are two notable examples. Here the great football players were once ‘born within the sound of hammers . . . they hold in them the energy of fire and damned rivers’. There are links made between Iron Towns and ‘the empty London docks . . . the car works at Dagenham’, along with a pitiful list of redevelopment plans for the area: ‘A J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired theme park, a shopping centre, a new home for the BBC, a Japanese car plant (before the Japanese went the way of the Iron Towns).’

Behind all of this, of course, is the legacy of Thatcher (unsurprising, given Cartwright’s last novel was titled How I Killed Margaret Thatcher), though the book is all the more powerful for not mentioning her. His targets aren’t the hegemony of Bullingdon Club toffs who dominate contemporary politics, or the disappointment of New Labour, but the root causes of Britain’s decline. And this is what legitimises the decision to go far into the past, with Red Shift-esque flashes of the landscape from 300-years ago; into ‘deep English pastoral,’ and a mythical England even more ancient. While these passages are stunning, they also highlight the book’s central problem, which is the structural device of telling these fractured, fragmented narratives and flashbacks in parallel; a principle which risks confusing the reader as to which story they are following. This may be symptomatic of the mode du jour of much modern fiction; multiple points-of-view, and the ubiquitous use of the present tense. On a number of occasions, one longed for the book to focus simply on Liam, as his story frequently echoes that of fiction’s great sport-playing losers: David Storey’s Frank Machin, Roth’s The Swede, Updike’s Harry Angstrom.

Cavils aside, taken as a whole, Iron Towns is a threnody for a lost England, where a manufacturing base has long been replaced by faceless service industries; real jobs by automated supermarket checkouts. The over-familiar pathos of a devastated industrial landscape remains somehow potent in Cartwright’s hands. Provocative and perceptive, the novel depicts a country where the industrial past exists only in paintings hanging in the local Town Hall. Where characters such as Liam can only ‘sing of better days’, and reflect on past glories, like the time he once played for the national team: ‘They always say he never touched the ball, but he did . . .’

If the post-industrial Midlands is stalked by the ghost of Thatcher, so is the Belfast of the 1970s and 80s. Siren, the debut novel from prize-winning Irish short story writer Annemarie Neary, is a taut, compelling revenge thriller that transcends genre confines by its exploration of dark political subject matter, combined with a sharp ear for language.

After a flashback to a dramatic, violent abduction, the book begins on the West Cork island of Lamb, when Rόisín Burns – or Sheen – arrives to rent an isolated cottage. Against a superbly evoked backdrop (buildings are ‘salt-blackened and licheny’), which includes a cast of voyeuristic grotesques, such as loner and stooge Boyle, Sheen’s real story gradually emerges. Originally from Belfast, she has just spent twenty years in New York building a new identity. While there, she accidentally glimpses the face of Brian Lonergan on TV. Realising that this brutal paramilitary figure from her past has also reinvented himself as a plausible politician, she vows to track him down on Lamb island, where she discovers he has a holiday home. Only Lonergan is one step ahead. Once the would-be avenger is rumbled, the book really begins to grip.

Much of this tension is down to Neary’s decision to go deep into Sheen’s upbringing in 1970s Belfast. Here, the nightmare world of sectarian politics, intimidation, internment, roadblocks and deadly violence is vividly imagined: ‘In Belfast, there were eyes everywhere. Snipers and touts, security cameras and Special Branch.’ In a series of totally convincing (and terrifying) scenes involving the IRA, we learn Lonergan was once high in the organisation’s ranks; dedicated to setting up British soldiers in honeytraps. It’s while on a disastrous double-date – rivalling Edna O Brien’s famous one in The Country Girls (1960) – that Sheen unwittingly lures a soldier to his death, thus becoming the Homeric siren of the book’s title. After this, there is no alternative but to leave for the USA. Yet Neary refuses to draw sides, merely showing how morally opaque the times were; how whole communities became unwillingly enmeshed in the Troubles. While Lonergan talks of ‘legitimate targets,’ we learn Sheen’s father was also deeply involved in the Republican cause, though the full details never emerge.

Once we join Sheen back on Lamb Island, with Lonergan and Boyle on her tail, the race is on to expose her old nemesis for who he is. In a display of finely-engineered reveals and set-backs, the book races to its ingenious, moral conclusion. Yet, it isn’t Neary’s plotting that impresses, so much as her instinct for character and location. Boyle is a terrific smalltown Irish villain, corrupt to the core – worthy of McGahern or Kevin Barry. And the book’s ‘voiced’ prose is pitch-perfect – rich in the vernacular, brutal, gritty, full of relish. Visually, too, nothing escapes Neary’s painterly eye.

While most thrillers have tawdry greed at their core, the fact that Siren hinges on conflicting ideologies makes it doubly compelling. Fluent and fierce, the book’s integration of the politics of North and South with a gripping revenge plot makes it truly exciting and memorable.