Have we lived and fought in vain?
Christopher Priest, March 28, 2012
The Troubles (1968-1994) is a fascinating and utterly tragic time period in Irish history. (Although, there isn't much in Irish history that can't be described as tragic.) . . . I guess you can say it's my way of finding a real situation that fits extreme good versus extreme evil.Stina Leicht, May 9, 2012
Of Blood and Honey (2011) is Stina Leicht's debut novel, set in 1970s Northern Ireland. It's the story of Liam Kelly, a young Catholic from Derry who believes his father to have been a Protestant, but who is really the son of an otherworldly shapeshifter whose people ("the Fey") have long been engaged in a war with fallen angels ("the Fallen"). Interned in Long Kesh for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Kelly is traumatized by repeated rape at the hands of a prison guard. On his release, he moves to West Belfast, joins the IRA as a wheelman, and discovers he can shapeshift into a beast that terrifies him. Further traumatized by the murder of his wife at the hands of four Royal Ulster Constabulary officers who were suborned by his father's enemies, he takes to heroin, discovers his parish priest, Father Murray, is part of a Church organization dedicated to battling supernatural creatures, is forced to kill his best friend, discovers his commanding officer in the IRA is a tout for MI5, and kills his whole unit. The novel's conclusion involves the kidnapping of Kelly's mother by the Fallen and a showdown between the Fey and the Fallen at a stone circle outside Derry.
With so much wild and potentially interesting stuff going on, you might be surprised to hear that I don't think Of Blood and Honey is actually a very good book.
It's not terrible. If the prose is nothing to write home about, it's as competent as many other debuts. While there are pacing issues and frustration issues—many of which would be solved if people stopped keeping the secret of his parentage from Kelly for little reason other than because the plot requires it—it is, again, as competent as many other debuts. But if it had been set somewhere less unusual than Northern Ireland during the Troubles, I doubt it would have made the Crawford Award shortlist, or seen Leicht onto the ballot for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
It might have been as well if it had been set somewhere other than Northern Ireland. Many of the things that kept shoving me out of the narrative had to do with my sense that Leicht had no real understanding of the landscape—psychological and physical—of her chosen milieu. Derry, Ballymena, and Belfast are interchangeable blank sets, with no distinguishing features apart from the names: Leicht speaks of driving blocks during a car-chase in Belfast and seeing an RUC patrol car going parallel at an intersection a road away, which rather threw me. The last time I was there, it seemed like Belfast was made of curves, not the straight line grid of an American city. Martin McGrath has written a long and detailed review from the point of view of a native: I agree with him on nearly all points, and found Leicht's failed attempts to reproduce local idiom particularly jarring. I'll not have it said my mates from up North talk like Yoda all the time.
Suffered you have. Made great sacrifices for the cause. (And Blue Skies from Pain, p. 136)
I've never lived in Northern Ireland, but I've lived beside it my whole life. The Good Friday Agreement was signed when I was twelve, in 1998. Thanks to the continued activity of the Continuity IRA and the "Real" IRA (fire bombings, hoax bomb warnings, non-hoax bombs, bank robberies, a defused bomb in Dublin in 2005 and the fatal shooting of a police officer investigating a report of a broken window in Craigavon, Co. Armagh in 2009) on the Republican side, and the UVF and the Real Ulster Freedom Fighters on the Loyalist side (not to mention the continued involvement of most parties in organized crime), the past is never really forgotten. Sometimes, it's hardly even past, and it's impossible to reconcile competing evils. Whether or not one thinks the disenfranchisement of the Northern Irish Catholic population as a result of the dominance of the Protestant majority justified violent republicanism, in no way is the IRA absolved of its depredations upon the communities it claimed to protect: kneecappings, beatings, the extortion of protection money. Maybe this is part of why it's so rarely treated of in fiction: the layers of ugliness and myth are hard to unpick.
Leicht's Northern Ireland, however, accepts Republican hagiography as truth: in all of Of Blood and Honey, there is not one virtuous Protestant, not one named loyalist character who is less than perfectly vicious. With the exception of Éamon, the IRA officer turned by MI5 (and that should probably be the Special Branch), the IRA men are made of goodness and light and mend little old ladies' fences. (This is actually Kelly's first job for his IRA unit.) This strikes me as lacking in balance, as a very nationalist view of the 1970s.
Mind you, the oversimplified as-you-know-Bob exposition that crops up from time is even more wince-inducing. From Chapter 8 of Of Blood and Honey, we get an excessively simplified bad historical version of Why Religious Sectarianism Exists In Ireland, given by Kathleen Kelly, Liam's mother, to Bran, his supernatural father:
"Queen Mary's father was King Henry the Eighth. The one who established the Church of England. The Pope excommunicated him for divorcing Mary's mother. Henry killed English Catholics who wouldn't convert. Mary didn't agree with her father. So it was when Mary eventually became Queen long after her father's death she abolished the Church of England. Burned three hundred Protestants for heretics, Father Murray said. It was then that the hatred between the Catholics and Protestants was born."
. . . "It would make more sense if all this were about Oliver Cromwell. Was him that came to Ireland, declared Catholicism illegal and murdered the Catholics here." (p. 56)
Now, you'd think a semi-immortal shapeshifter who'd been hanging around Ireland since the Iron Age would have some idea of historical developments. At least, I would. Now, I wouldn't be surprised if he was baffled by the politics of the 1801 Act of Union and the twentieth century Partition of Ireland, since many people are. But Henry VIII and Cromwell? That's an awkward ignorance, all things considered.
Then there's what happens to Mary Kate, Kelly's wife. Her death and sexual violation spur his development: does it really need an instance of the Women In Refrigerators trope to set Kelly on the road to willingly using his other, shapeshifted "monster" self? Does it really need for Kathleen Kelly, his mother, to be kidnapped and set at risk for him to gain control over his inner monster? Are women doomed forever to be motivating adjuncts to the men?
And Blue Skies from Pain (2012) is a better book than its predecessor. It suffers from many of Of Blood and Honey's flaws—the absence of a non-evil face for the Protestant community (with the exception, perhaps, of a handful of punk rockers whose sectarian affiliations are less than clear), the fact that British soldiers play the role of literal demonic footsoldiers at the climactic shoot-out, the whitewashing of nationalism—but its focus is much more on the supernatural, much less on the sectarian elements, and that makes it a more interesting read. Less republican hagiography, less rape, more Fey vs. Priests vs. Demons.
This three-sided conflict formed the supernatural background to Of Blood and Honey. Here it comes to the fore, as Kelly surrenders himself to his parish priest's secret order of demon-fighting Jesuits (the Milites Dei) in order to procure a truce between the Catholic Church and his father's people, by proving that the Fey are not really demons as such. In between trying to prove his fundamental humanity, he has to battle the vengeful ghost of an evil RUC man, come to terms with his other nature, deal with former comrades in the IRA—at least one of whom has been corrupted by a demon—who kidnap him and Father Murray in order to force him to play wheelman for a bank job, and face another climactic showdown with the Fallen. The final battle is this time enlivened by fighting nuns, who may be the best thing in either book.
I wouldn't recommend Of Blood and Honey. Had it taken place in a different setting, one about which I knew less, I might have liked it more, with fewer reservations. But And Blue Skies from Pain is pretty entertaining urban fantasy, and if it stood better on its own . . . well. My feelings about it might be different. On the other hand, ifs and buts don't change the past—even if, sometimes, they change the future. History isn't a theme park, and living sectarian strife deserves a little bit better than the Disney treatment: the scabs are still too new.
Further Reading on Northern Ireland
- Paul Dixon, (2011), Northern Ireland Since 1969, Longman.
- Marianne Elliott (2009), When God Took Sides. Religion and Identity in Ireland: unfinished History. OUP, Oxford.
- Marianne Elliott. ed(s) (2007), The Long Road to Peace in Northern Ireland. Liverpool University Press, Liverpool.
- Claire Mitchell (2006), Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland: the Boundaries of Belonging and Belief. Ashgate Publishing.
- Maria Power. ed(s) (2011), Building Peace in Northern Ireland. Liverpool University Press, Liverpool.
- Maria Power (2007), From ecumenism to community relations: inter-church relationships in Northern Ireland 1980-2005. Irish Academic Press, Dublin.