Young Mickey Donnelly is growing up in a trap. Hemmed in by the No Mans Land between Belfast’s catholic and Protestant communities, in the shadow of the Shankill butchers, he’s learning how to navigate his way though a morally complex world which is macho and anti intellectual to say the least.
The Good Son is a unique insight into a time and place like no other, Northern Ireland during The Troubles, through the eyes of a smart, artsy, principled and not particularly streetwise kid. But Mickey has his rich imagination to save him. That and the filims, which give him a window into a world outside the terrifying grey trap into which he was born. Young Mickey plots to save his family and become a filim star in America, all the while with a deep understanding that not everyone in his story will get out alive.
McVeigh could have written this novel as a tragedy or a misery memoir, instead he chooses comedy. But in this writer’s capable hands Mickey’s hilarious one liners and rich flights of fancy do not mask or distract us from the tragedy at the heart of his story, rather they reveal it. In some ways this entire novel is an exercise in bathos.
For me The Good Son has been enlightening. If I ever believed that Northern Ireland’s troubles were due to entrenched ideological differences, or a kind of wilful nationalistic self abuse, I do not now. The Belfast McVeigh renders, through the eyes of a child, is a Kafkaesque system. One in which individuals are trapped, against their wishes, their beliefs and very often their values, into a thousand daily decisions. This is not ideology at work, for many families, but the pragmatics of survival. Every politician ought to be made to read this book.
The novel’s other revelation for me has been the richness and humour in the local dialect. Cleverly and poetically woven by McVeigh into the main narrative. As I turned the last page of The Good Son I found my own vocabulary had been somewhat expanded: I’ve never felt scundered so much in my life, or told so many people, affectionately, that they’re a wee shite.
A must read.