From Line of Duty through to The Lovers, we’re now seeing a myriad of works that feature the city in a different light. Of course, the legacy of our recent past will always inspire others, but the diversity of perception is an excellent development.
Of course, for some, this doesn’t go far enough. But you can’t please everyone.
Universally acclaimed upon its publication earlier this year, Michael Magee’s debut novel sits in the middle of these developments due to its depiction of Belfast as a modern, metropolitan city but the very heart of the story harks back to Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie series.
Superficially a combination of Fuccboi (the struggles of the youth in the 21st century) and Pulling Moves (the antics of West Belfast natives), Close to Home details the life of Sean Maguire. Perpetually broke, living in abandoned accommodation and with an inner circle of headdaballs, he resides in a perpetual state of frustration and anxiety.
Over the course of nearly 300 pages, we see him go on the lash with his mates, get a sentence of 200 hours community service for assaulting a student, get fired from a variety of jobs, rekindle an on/off relationship and struggle to cope with his immediate family members who are fighting their own demons. All of this fuels a conflict between wanting to escape his surroundings and feeling out of place when he steps into different circles.
While there is no doubt that Magee is a talented writer who has written a highly readable novel that attempts to grapple with big issues (such as the legacy of the conflict, the intensity of the struggle of trying to make a living today, the role of family in a fractured society and how your identity is moulded by your world) in a way that other writers hint at, there are issues that stop me from recommending Close to Home.
Firstly, a few elements (such as Sean cyberstalking his half-sister and his work relationship with an older man named Fra) are not resolved and leave the reader hanging. Because the narrative veers between episodic and structured (with the latter increasing over the final third), there is a sense that Magee is building to a particular revelation/incident with the aforementioned elements. So when they either go nowhere or are dropped, the feeling of disappointment is strong.
Secondly, Sean himself doesn’t feel like a fully rounded character at times. It is quickly established that he went to university in Liverpool to do a creative writing module. However, this angle comes across as more of an affectation as opposed to an integral part of Sean’s psyche. There are the odd references to writing (which, once again, increase as we near the end) and literature but it never gels with the character. As well as this, Sean complains at one point about the “hippies and the emos” who hung outside the City Hall calling the likes of him “smicks and spides.” I hate to tell you this but since you spend half of the book acting like a spide, you’re a fucking spide! Occasional references to Susan Sontag and La Haine will not convince me otherwise.
Thirdly, there is just a little hint of condescension in the ending. While I understand and accept that the struggle between wanting to escape your surroundings and feeling loyalty towards them are a staple of great stories (hence why I invoked the Kevin and Sadie series), it seems that the rush to get to the end inadvertently led to the narrative taking a particular stand on the issue which (if you’re feeling unkind) reduces some of the characters as stereotypes in retrospect. I’ve no wish to spoil the ending but, if you’ve already read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Once again, I cannot deny that I was never bored reading Close to Home and some of the situations made me smile with recognition. However, is it an era defining work? No. But Magee has announced his intentions with Close to Home, so he’ll be one to keep an eye out for in the literary world documenting the new Belfast.
Michael Magee, 2023, Close to Home, Hamish Hamilton. ISBN-13: 979-0241582978
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.