The Glorious Heresies. Wow. What a novel! A few days after being so captivated by the story that I read the last 120 pages in 2 hours and I’m still in awe. No wonder it won the Bailey’s Prize last year!
Set in contemporary Cork (Ireland), The Glorious Heresies pivots on the death of a man named Robbie O’Donovan. His demise influences numerous people in the city, whether they knew him directly or not. He is never alive in the novel’s world – he exists only in the memories of others. What this achieves is to show both how brief and fragile life is, and how one life, one death, one moment can have massive, unforeseen consequences. She weaves this wonderful web of interactions – individuals crossing paths often without knowledge of the connections they share or how they have influenced each other’s lives. Community is both real and imagined in this novel: felt keenly through harsh judgments or offers of solace, or understood only briefly at the mention of a name in conversation. It’s a beautiful and remarkable structure.
McInerney’s Ireland is harsh and brutal. So many fundamental aspects of Irish identity are changing or being erased in the twenty-first century landscape of her novel that the characters resort to desperate measures just to stay afloat. This is about people who do not or cannot ‘toe the line’ by conforming to Irish history and identities. Alcoholism, prostitution, drug addiction, rape, murder, child abuse and, perhaps most difficult to accept, the issue of the influence that the Catholic Church has on Irish identity and in Irish politics. There is an underlying anger towards religion itself coursing through the novel, but particularly towards the treatment of unmarried mothers in the Magdalen Laundries throughout the twentieth century. The characters face these traumas, often in the full knowledge of those around them, except no one wishes to confront the terrible truth directly. Neither the individuals nor their relatives, nor the authorities wish to accept the situation, allocate blame or receive the support they really need. People find their own ways of surviving – ways that both connect them with other characters and force them into further isolation. Those “glorious heresies” portrayed in the novel – glorious, because there is often or appears to be, no other option, meaning characters feel no need for shame- show survival of the fittest at its most raw, its most exposed.
She presents in great detail how characters come to terms with their past, personal and national. This is particularly effective when it overlaps with parent-child relationships, or interactions between older and younger generations. While Maureen Phelan and Tony Cusack are trying to come to terms with their pasts, the younger characters are trying to escape theirs. In the cases of Maureen and Tony’s children, the past they are escaping is the fraught relationships with their parents.
Maureen Phelan is undoubtedly my favourite character. Her caustic humour provides some much needed relief from the often graphic scenes and subject matter that are portrayed – Chapter 10 is ‘laugh out loud’ hilarious. She is flawed, she makes mistakes and rash decisions, but her story and character remain affecting because she is so rarely self-pitying. She also genuinely wants to help people. She’s a perfect example of the ‘wise older woman’ trope from fairytales, except McInerney makes her ‘real’, with this complex past influencing her attitudes and actions. Our knowledge of her mistakes means we take to her advice to other characters much more easily. McInerney also doesn’t signpost that this is her ‘role’ in the story or that she fits the role comfortably – so often, the female characters written for that role are literally cardboard cut-outs of a ‘type’.
McInerney showcases a masterpiece of characterisation with Maureen. The other main characters are beautifully drawn, and often as endearing, but there’s almost an extra dimension to Maureen that makes her truly magical.
In short, I loved pretty much everything about this novel. The first couple of chapters are really great at introducing the main players, and then suddenly drawing them together and revealing the connections.
Yes, it’s dark and graphic, but it’s also funny and affecting. There are some parts that seem a little slow, but this let you process events, and the underlying tension keeps you turning those pages.
This should definitely be added to your “To Be Read” list!