So It Is by Liam Murray Bell
Liam Murray Bell’s So It Is is a bildungsroman set in west Belfast during the decades of the Troubles. Twelve year old Aoife’s mother experiences a mental breakdown in the aftermath of accidentally informing on a neighbour, resulting in his death. Her father is irresponsible, often absent and has a fondness for gambling and alcohol. Aoife is required to grow up quickly in an unforgiving, and often outright hostile, environment. So It Is does not promise to be full of sunshine and butterflies, it’s fair to say.
Aoife spends her early teenage years acting as surrogate homemaker and homemade jewellery entrepreneur while attempting to derail her younger brother Damien and on-off boyfriend Ciáran’s fledgling association with militancy. Bell’s prose is clean and well judged, always used practically to tell his story, and never resorting to superfluous ornamentations. He demonstrates a good eye for the small, almost mundane detail which balances the general atmosphere of menace and tension he has skilfully created. Aoife is precocious in the way all young protagonists must be to engage us, but at times maybe a little too percipient for us to fully accept, displaying a great deal of knowledge of the breadth, scope and history of the conflict surrounding her. Occasionally we have the strange sense of a teenager equipped with the hindsight of a well-informed researcher standing outside of the situations being described, providing us with a history lesson.
Aoife’s is one of two separate narratives that slowly merge over the course of the novel. The second storyline focuses on Cassie, an INLA (later rogue dissident) paramilitary who engages in brutally violent reprisals and later killings; her modus operandi is to take the role of honey trap armed with vagina dentata fashioned from a broken tonic mixer bottle. All of which is as shocking as it sounds. It won’t be a surprise to learn that So It Is is not a read for the squeamish or faint of heart/stomach. That said, the violence here is used effectively, brutally so. Although So It Is is at times pantomime in its gratuitousness, Bell largely understands that for violence to be truly terrible, and terrifying, it must be described with a degree of distance. The gaps left to our imagination compel us, against our will, to be complicit in creating real revulsion.
Structurally the novel is perhaps a little overcomplicated: sections of two separate interspersed narratives are initially represented in different typefaces before merging into a single first-person account three-quarters of the way through. It’s an unusual device that is not entirely successful, although in general the strength of the writing is enough to prevent the narrative stalling.
So It Is represents a mature explorationof a controversial and difficult subject, and Bell has handled it intelligently, never compromising or sanitising, and wisely choosing to place the human – not the political or paramilitary – story at the centre of the novel. Bell does not take a side in the conflict he describes. Although the primary characters are from the nationalist community, and we are presented with the injustices of their situation from their point of view, the barbarity of their actions creates an insurmountable barrier to fully empathising with them.
Indeed Bell seems to reiterate to us that dealing in death is full of mistakes and confusion, not solutions. Towards the end of the novel a supporting character suggests that the only way to move forward is through a compromise which includes an element of forgetting. The harrowing conclusion here is anything but a compromise, and for Bell’s bloodstained protagonist, forgetting is the one act she cannot perform.
Macavity the Mystery Cat
So It Is
Liam Murray Bell
Myriad Editions, rrp £8•99, 352pp