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The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerny

27th Apr 2015

★★★★
The Glorious Heresies
It’s difficult to believe that this is Lisa McInerny’s first novel. The Glorious Heresies is a confident and gritty portrayal of interconnected characters roaming around post-crash Cork.

The Glorious Heresies follows Ryan, as he becomes a “man,” his girlfriend Karine whom he is desperately in love with, his alcoholic father Tony and their neighbour, Tara. It also follows Maureen, who has just been reunited with her son, Jimmy, who is Cork’s top gangster; and Georgie, who used to work in one of Jimmy’s brothels. All of these lives are affected by Maureen’s accidental killing of Robbie, a would-be burglar and Georgie’s boyfriend.

This novel is stuffed with ideas: the blurb says the book examines ‘salvation, shame and the legacy of Ireland’s twentieth-century attitudes to sex and family’, but it actually manages to do a hell of a lot more on top of that. Contemporary attitudes to masculinity and femininity are explored and criticised and a light is shone on the sort of people who aren’t given voices, the willfully forgotten or ignored people living in the underbellies of cities.

Restrictive gender roles are key themes in this novel. When we first meet Ryan he is, at fifteen, beginning to navigate his masculinity: ‘he left the boy a pile of mangled skinny limbs and stepped through the door a new-born man’. It could be argued that one of the main themes of this book is how performed masculinity can bring so much downfall and destruction, both to individuals and society.

The novel follows Ryan until he is twenty and the damage done to him since he “became” a man is obvious. His father, too, suffers; feeling unable to protect his children he seeks solace in alcohol.

Traditional feminine roles are explored too: the impact of women only being seen either for their lovableness (Karine, who Ryan puts on a pedestal) or as a sexual object (Georgie, who is denigrated by the man who used to be her pimp) or as a mother (Maureen). All three women have been forced or coerced into restrictive roles by society, which denies them their full humanity.

The novel suggests that we are not as advanced as we think we are, as history continues to repeat itself.Motherhood is examined both historically and from a contemporary perspective. Maureen was forced to give up her child by her women-hating mother, and wonders if Jimmy would have turned out better had she not been shipped away to London. It is heart-breaking to see Georgie fighting to get her baby back and knowing, from Ryan’s perspective especially, that she is too far gone to be able to do so. The novel suggests that we are not as advanced as we think we are, as history continues to repeat itself.

The role of religion in these representations of gender and motherhood is obvious; Maureen even kills Robbie with a ‘Holy Stone’. Georgie joins a cult and discovers that her past will never fully be forgotten in the eyes of the followers: she will always be “unclean”. Shame is seen in the older characters particularly, and in the eyes of people who think that Georgie should feel it.

Ireland’s post-crash society is mentioned a lot: of course, there is no real getting away from it. One of the reasons many of the characters (Tony, Ryan, Georgie) are as desperate as they are is the lack of available jobs.

The Glorious Heresies feels raw: there’s plenty of drug dealing and taking, lots of swearing and a fair bit of sex. Lives are seen breaking and there isn’t much hope for the future; this may be too raw for some. But the darkness here is always balanced with a little humour. With such bleak and often tragic circumstances, this could be a melodramatic book. But the prose is so wonderful, strong and self-assured, that you feel in very capable hands.

In some ways, The Glorious Heresies reads a like a book of short stories than a novel; things are left out, unsaid, until towards the end. It starts with the dead man and how these lives are connected by it, but only uses that as a starting point; so the plotting could be a little tighter. That said, in The Glorious Heresies, McInerny shows what a wonderful new talent she is. This book is well worth your time.