Book review: The Blocks

WHAT stays with you long after you finish The Blocks are the images, the words and, even more than that, the sounds.

Karl Parkinson

New Binary Press, €15

The author of the novel, Karl Parkinson, is a poet after all.

“De fat kids drink bottles uv coke wit der names on dem n spit chicken bones on de ground. Nike n Adidas signs er everywer, tracksuits uv indigo n concrete grey, luminous yellow n glowin Dutch orange runners on der feet.”

Like a poem, this novel suits being read aloud. It’s the better way to enter the flow of it, as it brings you on an absorbing ride — warts and all — into a part of Irish society rarely seen by most.

The words are working class Dublin speak, and the spelling, phonetic. For those who are from these areas, or who live or work there, it is easy enough to follow. For the rest, some might balk at the apparent demands of it: but push yourself that small bit. You will be rewarded.

The setting is three notorious flats complexes: Ballymun (north Dublin); O’Devaney Gardens (north inner city) and Fatima Mansions (south inner city).

These flats loosely bookmark the novel’s three stages: childhood; adolescence, and adulthood.

But it’s O’Devaney Gardens that is the heart of the novel, straddling all three stages of the personal, artistic and spiritual journey of the protagonist Kenny Thomson.

“O’Devaney Gardens n I grew der wit all de junkies, thieves, madmen n madwomen, sinners n singers, comedians n clowns. Wit de relics n de blood n de violence, n de beautifully deranged, de stories n de saints.” From the start, as a child, Kenny has a gift, or “the sight”, with a direct link to the mystical. He sees, and converses with, angels and demons.

The most striking of these creatures are what Kenny calls the ‘Glooptings’, physical and metaphysical forces — forces of darkness, violence, misery and nightmares. They prey on all, particularly the most vulnerable.

The Blocks is a heady mix of grim social realism and fantasy, dropping the reader from a height into a world filled with blood and bones, drugs and drink, pain and grief, profanity and prose, abusive drunks of das and violent, but caring, mas. Kenny is a shaman of the blocks, spitting the demons out.

The novel is also about friendship and humour, art and literature, and love. Kenny’s friends comprise addicts, the depressed, poets and musicians. Their lives centre around booze and dope, football and girls, music and bands, the dole and dead-end jobs, break-ups and death.

There are stand-alone scenes: snippets of lives that are sometimes terribly moving and sad. They all leave marks on the reader.

Kenny, who comes across as the author the more we get to the end, finds refuge and purpose, first in lyrics and, then, in poetry — and in his love for girlfriend Tara.

The Blocks (and what a deadly title) is a story from the frontlines. It’s a voice for, and of, the voiceless. With the Ballymun towers and Fatima demolished and O’Devaney Gardens set for the wrecking ball, this is a social history too.

What few faults there are might include the sheer amount of characters, the occasional confusion around who’s voice we are hearing and occasional repetition on drugs and music.

Parkinson’s work packs a punch, both literary and political. A modern day tract of sorts.

“...de blocks er supermarket shelves wer de poor er stacked tegether.. de blocks wer gargoyles perch on de edges, wer de dark entities cry in the cracks..oh My God wot has become uv yer children in dis garden uv black flowers...”

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