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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Sectarian Interfaces: Glenn Patterson's That Which Was

(London: Penguin, 2005. £10)

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 6 September 2006

In this latest of Belfast native Glenn Patterson's series of novels from the past couple of decades that, as he has matured, show the crest and now the ebb of the Troubles, Patterson turns to the trauma inflicted on victims- those innocent and those who have become entangled at young ages into sectarian and state-sponsored violence for the adrenaline it provides. Ken Avery, a 34-year-old Presbyterian preacher of a small East Belfast congregation, tries to figure out, in the waning days of the year 2000, if Larry, who comes to him with a confession of his complicity in a triple murder from the early 1980s that remain (with as Patterson notes, 1800 other NI cases) unsolved, is in fact the guilty perpetrator.

Patterson, as he has in his earlier fictional studies, pursues the less graphic, more psychologically vivid nuances of the effects of what happens at what the municipal bureaucrats label 'sectarian interfaces'. Avery, as he juggles the demands of a five-year-old daughter, a snappish wife giving birth to their son, and a fractious group of clerical colleagues, bereaved supplicants, gawking paparazzi, and invisible thieves, must try to make sense of his own calling as he's tested by the aftermath of Larry's revelations. The novel's blurbs make much of the fact that this preacher is also a Lou Reed fan; surely by now a half-century of folks- yes, even Christians- raised on rock need not be that extraordinary?

Born in 1964, Patterson lacks the frenetic if increasingly strained satire of Colin Bateman or the ambitious send-ups of Robert MacLiam Wilson. But whereas Ripley Bogle and Eureka Street may have attracted for MacLiam Wilson more media attention or at least better lines to quote from their uproarious protagonists, Patterson by stamina and craft may yet outpace his louder and brasher peers. Bateman appears to have remained on the light comic side; MacLiam Wilson's more ambitious texts have left his audience waiting long now for a hat trick to follow his two early scores. Meanwhile, Patterson keeps producing every couple of years a well-structured, nuanced, and believable narrative. His career has concentrated on a steady series of character studies that over the past fifteen years have shown him able to leave behind the 'Troubles genre' into which his earlier novels have inevitably been placed.

That Which Was appears to extend his portrayal of suburban life, anticipated in the previous novel, Number 5, that contains the tensions of Belfast survival blocks away from the barricades or peace walls-- along with a more measured taking of lower middle-class aspirations to leave such stresses behind, at least when one returns from work each evening. His characters are never less than proud if conflicted natives, yet they refuse to be stereotyped by their hometown. This humanism connects such figures to their unassuming but observant creator, Patterson. (He has released this summer his first non-fictional book, Lapsed Protestant.) East Belfast, as in other Patterson novels, combines the mundane with the awful, and the mixed legacy of a city preparing the new waterfront arena, the Odyssey, and a gentrifying civic landscape for Bill Clinton's visit circa the millennium plays off against the same city's shadowy figures unwilling or unable to let faction fights of the past few decades subside.

This novel kept my interest; I read it in three long sittings. It's subtle, and does not leap off the page with glorious evocations of haunted setting or whimsical lovable pubcrawlers or dramatic prison escapes that often overlap in other Northern Irish novels. But this makes the novel truer to everyday life, lacking the fireworks of a stupendous climax and offering instead more a damp fizzle of smoldering emotions. The novel reaches a rather convoluted peak and the resolution eludes easy comprehension. The latter portion of the book, while still satisfying, becomes rather forced in parts, as Avery's quest turns into a labyrinth. This may disappoint readers expecting a tidier ending. But it's a more realistic treatment even if as fiction it's less perfect.

Patterson pursues the more introspective plot but more faithfully rendered path as he follows Avery's attempts to ease a man's tortured conscience. Avery's a decent fellow, not a plaster saint. He's probably no more adept than anyone else as he tries- to be worthy of his profession- to bring a bit more peace into the world, and all the more admirable for his awkward, all-too-human grappling with questions of faith and medicine and morality--as all three collide in his effort to figure out the veracity of Larry's terrible memories that come back to haunt not only him.

(P.S. Avery looks up the case that Larry remembers in a book that's not credited in the body of the text by name but that remains a necessary source for anyone seeking real-life accounts from the Troubles. Lost Lives, ed. by David McKittrick et al. is a 1998 compendium of brief entries on all those killed in the decades of violence.)


























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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

10 September 2006

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Sectarian Interfaces: Glenn Patterson's That Which Was
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 9
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A Curious Snub
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