It’s 2009, summer, and Ireland stands on the brink of catastrophic recession, or, as the very unreliable narrator of Ithaca puts it: it was ‘the summer after all the money disappeared’.
That narrator is Jason Lowry, age 11, a deeply-troubled child who lives in a small country town ‘miles from anywhere and built inside a hole made out of a bog, weeds, mulch, and the soggiest soil you might ever see’.
Galway writer Alan McMonagle’s debut novel is a compelling tale of childhood, but with adult themes running through its pages. Jason lives with his mother, Jacinta, a young woman addicted to drink and wasteful with money, whose self-destructive nature overflows into her son’s life.
Too feckless to keep a job and, we presume from Jason’s thoughts and actions, unable to cope with rearing her son, she drifts aimlessly, having left in her wake a number of relationships with the men of the town.
Jason has no idea who his father is, and discovering his identity becomes his goal.
At his refuge, the swamp — a wasteland on the edge of town — he meets the ‘girl’ and together they indulge in games based on ancient myths — hence the title Ithaca, the island in Greek myth which is home to the long-absent father figure Odysseus. But, unlike in The Odyssey, there’s no nobility in the life of Jason Lowry.
Through his eyes we see the potential candidates for fatherhood: the tragic Fluky Nolan who commits suicide, and the sleazy Mario Devine, his mother’s landlord. With Jason as a disturbed, and sometimes very funny conduit, we are introduced to an array of characters, both tragic and darkly comic, who inhabit this fictional part of small town Ireland.
McMonagle’s writing is crisp and sharp, at its best when dialogue drives the story forward. He’s also a novelist who treads territory that Pat McCabe has previously made his own — there’s a darkness here reminiscent of The Butcher Boy.
The power of contrast is used beautifully, as when the ridiculous Mario Devine regales Jacinta with stories of taking her to Paris, while in the bathroom her son self harms with a razor blade, all the more shocking for McMonagle’s matter-of-fact description: ‘It was an untidy slice, jagged and deeper than the cuts I’d made on the hill, and I gasped with delight as soon as the blood spurted out.’
Through him we meet characters and types, exaggerated but vividly drawn. The village gossip, Diffley the moneylender, the town bullies — all appear, sometimes fleetingly, moving in and out of Jason’s life, his descriptions of them constantly reminding the reader we are listening to the words of a disturbed child.
For all the edginess and irony, McMonagle’s sympathy for his characters never wanes and we are even reminded that Jacinta was once ‘a little girl...full of her own hopes and dreams.’
Jason’s world revolves around his mother, despite her faults, and while the figure of the father, or very deliberately the absent father, hangs over the narrative, it’s a loose plot device used to tie together a series of encounters which tackle the difficult issues that arise as a child turns inward on himself.
Ithaca follows in a long tradition of novels set in the banal world of the depressed Irish town — grey settings of boarded-up shops and dimly-lit pubs, where little happens to upset the social order, and monotony, ultimately, can only be relieved by forays into dangerous territory.
Alan McMonagle has previously published two collections of short stories, both of which were nominated for The Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, while his radio play, Oscar Night, was broadcast as part of RTÉ’s Drama on One season.
Comic, tragic, and deeply affecting, Ithaca is a powerful debut.
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