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Close to Home

Anaesthetised lives

With its timely publication coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the award-winning Close to Home by Michael Magee considers the legacy left for the following generation of Belfast youth. The scars of The Troubles run deep for 22-year-old Sean, leading a precarious existence of casual employment, impecunity and thwarted dreams, his chief escape that of boozy nights out with mates and ‘baggies of white.’ When he’s found guilty of Actual Bodily Assault following yet another chaotic evening, Sean’s life looks set to unravel, unless he can come to terms with the traumas of his family and community’s past.

Nursing an ambition to be a writer, graduate Sean has returned to Belfast after university. Once prone to keeping a Moleskine journal in his back pocket in readiness for inspiration, he hasn’t written anything since. His degree hasn’t opened any doors, in fact he’s in the same position as his old school pals, a fact pointed out to him more than once.

Sharing a scuzzy flat with childhood friend, Ryan, the pair of them work four nights a week in a down-at-heel nightclub, and spend the rest of their time drinking, sniffing, scrapping, and coming down.

‘I felt like I’d been doing this half my life. Padding myself full of vodka, tooting keys in cubicles, throwing it on to girls who looked at me like I was dirt…’

Often on a hair-trigger, Sean’s temper lands him in a courtroom after he assaults a man who goads him about his absent father. Sentenced to two-hundred hours of community service, shortly followed by an eviction notice on the flat, Sean has reached a personal nadir.

Simmering beneath the surface, along with the testosterone, is the question of why he is so self-destructive. As personal histories unfurl against a backdrop of economic inequality and political abandonment, Sean becomes increasingly aware of the transgenerational trauma handed down by The Troubles. If the older generation discuss it at all, it is with alcohol-loosened tongues, relating tales of stray gunfire, British soldiers frisking Irish women between the legs, the incalculable terror of the IRA execution hit list.

Sometimes the pain is expressed more obliquely. While serving his community sentence tidying up a local cemetery, Sean encounters an older man, on his knees, almost weeping. He’s broken a statue of St Anthony, patron saint of lost things and lost people, in a city where so much is irretrievable.

Magee is brilliant at portraying Sean’s time and place in history and his struggle to break free of its straitjacket. There is always light in the darkness; it’s in the energy and loyalty of his friends, the potential romance with a girl whose sights are set beyond prescribed horizons, and it’s in the tentative wish that surfaces at key moments, to be a writer.

Sean’s lifestyle has been toxifying. Knowing that he needs to ‘get out of this,’ he realises that he doesn’t know what ‘this’ is. The aftermath of his impulsive assault sets him on the road to finding out.

Simultaneously unflinching and compassionate, in Magee’s deservedly accolade-laden debut, we find a writer destined for great things.

Close to Home by Michael Magee is published by Hamish Hamilton, 288 pages.

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