"We learn slash and burn is the method to use, set it flame, burn it new", Tolerance, 10,000 Maniacs.I grew up in Ireland, and still have a real affinity for the country. I learned to read there, and having the opportunity to revisit it through literature is something I genuinely appreciate. The likes of Declan Hughes, Benjamin Black, and now Michael Russell, provide a ready window into the country, and reinforce the point that Ireland is not Britain with some engaging local colour, but in fact is somewhere that despite the similarities that come from so much shared history, there is something very distinctive and different about it.
Michael Russell's début novel is a polished and highly enjoyable crime thriller that captures the profound challenges that faced Irish society as the Free State evolved towards the Republic during the 1930s. We're consistently reminded of distinct direction that Ireland under De Valera tried to take - ploughing a lonely furrow with avowed levels of independence and autarky which had the effect of creating a society that in struggling with the legacy of the Civil War and Church vs State tensions becomes a place when viewed from a contemporary perspective feels unappetising.
The concept of 'otherness' and intolerance is central to the book. It captures the rarities in a Catholic dominated society, not taking the easy route of talking about the remnants of the Anglo-Irish ascendency, but looking at the rarer Jewish, gay, and immigrant communities, and the levels of both tacit and overt intolerance to which they were exposed. This is fitting though, because as is accurately pointed out, "[a]bsence was in Jewish blood the same way it was in the blood of the Irish" (p.114).
Much in a similar vein to Alan Furst and John Lawton "The City of Shadows" captures the small human elements in the emerging tragedy of the mid-20th century, individuals striving to find some light in surroundings that can often feel almost overwhelmingly dark.
As is pointed out in the text, "In Ireland history never quite goes away" (p.211). From this perspective this is a novel that should make anyone with an affinity with Ireland rightly ashamed and angry, but at the same time a sense of pride can be derived from the fact that the nation did not take what could have been an easy path towards a fascist theocracy, but instead emerged to be the vibrant society it is today.
"The City of Shadows" was an almost accidental discovery last week, it deserves to succeed.