With endorsements from Kate Atkinson and The Guardian on its cover and a back cover synopsis promising a hilarious account of an Irish adolescent, I thought I was on safe territory here. Alas. This chaotic and rather addled novel felt like it was trying to wear a lot of different hats – trying to summon up the adolescent angst of Skippy Dies with the wit of Roddy Doyle and the grimness of Angela’s Ashes. Despite a promising start, Maher failed to match up with any of these.The Fields centres around thirteen year-old Jim, only boy of the family and runt of the litter. The novel’s opening lives up to the quotes on the cover, introducing a large and raucous family. Jim’s mother writes letters trying to get Frankie Goes to Hollywood banned, her coffee mornings revelling in the neighbourhood gossip, ‘”Jahear about so-and-so, Lord rest his soul, only 30 years old, poor creature!? They were brilliant at it. Scaring the shite out of each other, grinning inside, but on the outside all sad‘. Jim relates exuberantly the story of the time Helen Macdowell got whacked in the face by the hockey ball, then he acts it out all over again with his friends. He has a crush on the much older Saidhbh, whose father is ‘dead proud of being Irish so he always wears thick jumpers and makes his kids spell their names with as many ‘bh’s and ‘dh’s as possible‘. At this point, I thought we were in for a humourous novel with Jim our enthusiastic narrator, taking an atmospheric look at 1980s Ireland. So far, so Derry Girls. However, the plot takes quite a sudden turn when Jim becomes an altar boy.
Clerical abuse is not an easy subject to take on with humour. Maher maintains Jim’s voice well, a frenzied childish gabble contrasting horribly with the details of Father O’Culigeen’s assaults. I found these passages incredibly difficult to get through – I had not expected them and I found the violence extremely upsetting. This could of course be a sign that Maher’s writing was effective, just perhaps not for me as a reader. The Fields makes it horrifyingly obvious how untouchable the parish priest truly was in 1980s Ireland – it’s hard to believe that this was three whole decades ago. As Jim explains, Father O’Culigeen ‘could do anything for you, solve any problem. He was like Moses, or the old fella in The Equalizer‘. The past is another country, they do things differently there.
Ironically, Father O’Culigeen is ne of The Fields‘ most successful characters – skin-crawlingly loathsome in how affectionate he tried to be towards Jim, framing his abuse as love, heartbroken when Jim rejects him, then suddenly tormented and self-loathing. So rounded is he as a villain that Maher almost makes us feel sorry for him. But not quite. Still, while the novel might have gained traction in sticking to the plotline of Jim escaping and overcoming the abuse the priest subjected him to, Maher then takes the action in a completely different – and far less plausible – direction.
The likelihood of a seventeen year-old Saidhbh getting together with fourteen year-old Jim seems slim at best. Saidhbh is a very thinly-drawn character and her motivations are never clear. Still, the relationship occurs and has consequences that lead to Saidhbh needing to ‘take the boat’ over to England. Reading this in the year that Ireland finally voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment was interesting. Jim and Saidhbh get stuck in London and due to a series of rather improbable events, Jim becomes a faith healer. And at this point, I really wondered who had been Maher’s editor.
The Fields was not the book I was expecting it to be and served up far less humour than the cover-quotes suggested. For most of the novel, I either did not enjoy it (the clerical abuse) or I thought it was a complete curve ball out of keeping with the rest of the plot (faith healing). While Maher is clearly a hugely talented writer, this book feels like a debut and not one that I will be re-reading.
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Published by Hachette UK on February 28th 2013
Genres: Fiction, General, Family Life, Literary, Cultural Heritage
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