The Journey Home by Dermot Bolger
16 April, 2011
The Journey Home by Dermot Bolger was chosen by Kim of Reading Matters for our book group. I had never heard of Bolger or, admittedly, read much Irish fiction. I know there’s a slew of misery fiction set in Ireland but I’m not a huge fan as they just depress me. So I was little ambivalent about Kim’s choice. Yet, although the first half of the book was extremely slow, I’m really glad that I read it. Not only was it very different from my usual bookish fare, but it was melancholic and beautiful, all the while introducing you to a bleak and modern Ireland set in the 1980s. If you’re looking for an Ireland of green rolling hills and Guinness, look away, but I would still urge you to give The Journey Home a try.
This often poetic and lyrical book is about Francis Hanrahan and his best friend Seamus (Shay). And bound to them is Katie (Cait) who is in love with Shay but is on the run with Francis (Hano). Francis has just finished school and is looking for a job. His father, who relocated to Dublin from rural Ireland, works as a mechanic for the Plunkett brothers, one a businessman and the other a politician, both having worked themselves up from a background of poverty and who now unofficially run a chunk of Dublin. In other words, crooks trying to go legit. Francis’ father, silent and dour, is determined that Francis would never have to work for the Plunkett’s and is perplexed that Francis, who has finished school, is unable to find a job. But this is a climate where there are no jobs and the young Irish are tempted to find better lives in Europe. One of them is Shay, whom Francis meets on his first job and with whom he later shares a flat. Shay soon leaves for Europe leaving behind a bereft Francis and returns several months later, a changed man. During the months he is away, Francis has been made redundant, his father dies and he finds himself working for the Plunketts in order to repay the loan his mother had borrowed from them. Francis starts work as a driver and is soon on the slippery route to the dodgier side of Plunkett’s business especially after his boss starts showing a little too much interest in him. And when Shay returns, Francis leaves the Plunketts to try and get back to the golden time he had with his best friend, causing a rupture in everyone’s lives.
Bolger’s tale reads like a dream and you see what Francis, Shay and Katie experience as though you’re looking through a veil, mainly because it’s told through flashbacks as Francis and Katie are on the run. So there is mounting sense of unease as their past is unravelled.
One of the most chilling things I came away with is the incessant grasp of poverty. Francis’ family left the countryside to make a new start in the city. But Francis’ father, although he has a steady job, is forced to work for someone he despises. Yet he never forgets his roots, lovingly tending his garden to remind him of his ancestral land. The father and son relationship is drawn so poignantly, how close they were when Francis was a child and how it deteriorates through confusion and misunderstanding as time passes. And when he dies, his boss generously loans his wife funds for his funeral all the while making sure she is unable to pay it all back and using this to secure Francis’ employment.
In some ways the story is all about power and belonging, trying to escape from one place to another, but never actually being able to leave their lives behind because of other people’s manipulations.
Francis’ friendship with Shay is the first and only light-hearted experience in his life and is almost as though he is in love or wants to be Shay. I did rather get annoyed at the number of times Francis kept saying ‘Shay’ and couldn’t really see what he, or Katie, saw in him. Shay is someone who didn’t give a shit what anyone thought or said and lived life according to his own rules which is very attractive to those who are unable to do so and everyone falls in love with him. And one of them is Katie, an orphan and runaway, who meets Shay and falls further when he leaves.
I was expecting a thriller-ish novel, but it’s more a reflection on youth, poverty, dealing with the past and identity. I kept forgetting that The Journey Home is set in modern Ireland as there are echoes of an earlier time. Call me naïve but I never realised the complex nature of being Irish. There are so many books and films but I always assumed that if you are European, you’re European, and in some ways it’s shocking how even within Ireland itself there can be so many shades of prejudice.
So, although this is rather a rambling post, I do recommend The Journey Home if you are a particular fan of Irish writing. This book had a very mixed reaction in my book group but I thought it was a beautifully written book, although it may not be for everyone. In fact, this book could have been a lot grittier and violent considering the subject matter, and that’s probably the reason why I liked it.
Also, do check out Kim’s post for another opinion onthe book.