Université de Lille
Twenty-four years after the Good Friday Agreement, the North of Ireland is still in numerous ways a place marked by instability, not only in the seemingly unending accumulation of political crises which have been greatly exacerbated by Brexit, but also in economic, social, and psychological terms. As research has shown, “[p]sychiatric morbidity in Northern Ireland is 25% higher than in the UK” (O’Neill and Rooney), a statistic which is perhaps unsurprising given the longevity of the “Troubles” and the transgenerational transmission of pain, hurt, and trauma they engendered. Despite this bleak observation, however, the arts, and in particular literature and theatre, have increasingly become a counter-space where innovation, imagination, and creativity have perhaps never been greater. An astonishing number of publications over the past decade testify to the richness of culture in the North and to its attempts to put something else on the literary map beyond the trauma and horror, brutality and betrayal which have, understandably, long been omnipresent. Caroline Magennis’s book investigates this “something else” and does justice to a burgeoning field of novels, short stories and plays which veer away from the expected tropes and delve into the question of intimacy, and the related questions of affect and pleasure.
This is, above all, a meticulously situated critique of contemporary Northern Irish writing, and not just in terms of the temporal framework (the texts under scrutiny were written and published between 2015 and 2020). From the outset, Magennis takes care to critically situate herself not only within an academic field (of Northern Irish studies and of feminist critique), but also as a Northern Irish woman who “claim[s] solidarity and kinship with writing on Northern Ireland that attends to intimate configurations” and who has the lived experience of having grown up there towards the end of the conflict (5). As a result of this close contact with context, Magennis avoids the pitfalls she has observed in certain critical quarters where the inhabitants of the North sometimes become mere “fodder for a case study” (6), and where certain (redundant) scripts are rehearsed over and over again. She also weaves into her academic investigation of these works her own intimate connections to both the writing itself, along with a context which she “feels”, and to the very particular context in which this book was finalized, that is to say the global pandemic of 2020-2021 (still ongoing as I write this review). As Magennis notes on several occasions, thinking about this literature and the question of intimacy at a time when, for many, intimate connections were put on hold due to the restrictions in place, heightened her awareness and appreciation of the issues at stake, particularly haptic interactions, and her awareness of the unpredictability of the trajectory of future literary productions in Ireland and beyond. This book offers a wide-ranging yet clear snapshot of ultra-contemporary writing in the North and the new preoccupations it is privileging.
The book is constituted of four parts: a chapter on each of the three key issues explored, intimacy, pleasure, skin, and a final chapter entirely devoted to Anna Burns’s Milkman (2018) which, Magennis shows, resonates with all of the former questions in a highly innovative manner. Each section benefits from a robust critical introduction which sets the scene, as it were, before then delving into the intricacies of the texts themselves and the themes they explore. The scope of writing examined is impressively vast and balanced, several writers having been selected for study, among whom are Anna Burns, Lucy Caldwell, Jan Carson, Billy Cowan, Wendy Erskine, Phil Harrison, Rosemary Jenkinson, Michael Hughes, Roisín O’Donnell, Bernie McGill, David Park, Glenn Patterson. The explosion in Northern Irish writing over the past decade absolutely justifies such a wide spectrum and the only downside of this is that it is, consequently, impossible to provide close textual analyses of all these texts. This is not to take away from the excellent work Magennis is doing in this book, closely observing various representations of intimacy and discussing the (often feminist) agendas which subtend them. However, now that Magennis, through this book, has done all the necessary groundwork, other scholars may want to build on her important work and her incontestable claim that intimacy matters in Northern Irish writing.
The first section deals with intimacy and the politics of representation, and it is fitting that Magennis begins with a discussion of a neo-Troubles fiction text, Michael Hughes’s Country (2018), as this enables her to engage with the tropes of old and the manner in which Hughes’s novel reinvents certain hackneyed conventions and themes (the honeytrap, hyper-masculinity and heteronormativity within paramilitary movements), re-imbuing them with meaning and creating space for both women’s agency and the re-negotiation of intimate relations politically and domestically through the macro-structure and hypotext of Homer’s Iliad. The other texts explored in this section, while never completely free of the shadow of the conflict, are more contemporary in their setting and there are some delightful readings of often unacknowledged forms of intimacy: the space of the beauty salon in Wendy Erskine’s short story “To All Their Dues,” and the negotiation of faith in both Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters and Phil Harrison’s The First Day. This section also pays a good deal of attention to the stylistic innovation of a writer like Jan Carson, whose experiments with fantastic elements as they co-exist with the domestic in her novel The Fire Starters (and, indeed, in her writing more generally) expand the contours of Northern Irish writing, breaking firmly away from the realist mould. The ways in which both Harrison and Carson deal with violence, rendering it not incompatible with tenderness, is in marked contrast to what the playwright David Ireland has done in his play Cypress Avenue (2016), where the same old violent sensationalism so typical of the Troubles-era is foregrounded. Finally, in this section there is a stimulating discussion of the ways in which Lucy Caldwell engages with the notion of “digital intimacy” in her short story collection Intimacies, foregrounding and suspending judgement on the rapid social changes at work in the realm of the intimate in the age of social media and the immediacy provided by short messaging services.
The second section turns more specifically to pleasure and Magennis explains how, for so many years, the burden to represent (or search for representations of) the conflict was so heavy that pleasure was often overlooked. Her work seeks to redress this imbalance and succeeds in doing so, concentrating in this section on forms of pleasure in works by Lucy Caldwell, Billy Cowan, Rosemary Jenkinson, and Glenn Patterson. The introduction to this section might have benefitted from a more sustained definition of the way “pleasure” is to be understood here (physical, psychological, emotional, political, all of these?) but Magennis cites, and renders relevant to her discussion, Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva and satisfactorily defines the key term through them. Again, there are some wonderful readings here: the analysis of Patterson’s ironic use of the song “Shot by Both Sides,” or that of the way Rosemary Jenkinson revisits the stereotypical theme of Northern Irish women and their forbearance by transforming this into sexual stamina and voracious appetite. I wondered if more might have been made of Billy Cowan’s dramatic intent in the discussion of his play Still Ill, since one might question whether the politics of representation are the same in a play as in a novel or short story, but overall, this section offers compelling readings of the ways in which these Northern Irish writers strive to escape what Magennis calls “the past’s limiting paradigms” (87).
Chapter three then turns to “skin” and, like the previous chapters, opens with a strong theoretical and contextual introduction which lays the foundations of the subsequent analysis. Once again, we are treated to some thought-provoking readings here, including those on scabs and scars, and on the fine line which sometimes separates vulnerability and aggressivity. The dominant genre studied in this section is, with the exception of David Park’s Gods and Angels, the short story and three collections have been selected for scrutiny, Rosemary Jenkinson’s Aphrodite’s Kiss, Bernie McGill’s Sleepwalkers, and Roisín O’Donnell’s Wild Quiet. In a laudable effort to do justice to these writers, Magennis covers a very broad range of stories, and the overall approach is one of tantalizing readings of several stories, rather than a few in-depth close readings. This speaks, however, to Magennis’s generosity in writing about current Northern Irish fiction and, to a lesser extent, drama: this is a book which quite literally invites an extensive number of innovative and original texts to become part of an academic conversation and it would therefore be impossible to be exhaustive in the details of literary analysis.
In any case, the final chapter, devoted entirely to Anna Burns’s prizewinning Milkman allows Magennis all the necessary liberty to unpack the complexity of this novel unlike any other. There are some highly engaging readings here of rhythmic or kinetic language and the notion of shame, and a brilliantly executed incorporation of Sara Ahmed’s writing on the “feminist killjoy” and “affect aliens” in relation to Middle Sister and the ways in which she endures and responds to the daily oppressions she experiences. Magennis shows how Burns masterfully rejects the “assigned scripts” (144), developing an aesthetics which contests the rigid emotional landscape of this fictional Ardoyne (Belfast), and she also demonstrates how Burns reveals the dangers of transgressing “a homogenous affective climate” (161), and embraces the possibility of breaking free. Magennis’s analyses of Burns’s engagement with the fraught possibility of solidarity among women and with mental health issues are also excellent.
Magennis, rightly I think, invites us to accept “open endings” in lieu of a conclusion, gesturing to the ever-increasing number of novels and short stories being published by writers from the North, and providing us with one final insight into a novel for which she received the proof copy just as she was terminating her manuscript, Susannah Hickey’s Tennis Lessons (2020). Throughout this book, rather than reneging on or pushing to the background her own personal engagement with the issues raised and with the fraught political context, she situates it and relies upon it to “feel” her way intuitively through these texts, and this is precisely what makes this academic book such a refreshing and important read. The appendix is a lovely surprise, with reflections on writing and intimacy by twelve of the writers featured in the book. The incorporation of these reflective pieces underlines Magennis’s close consideration of writers’ agendas, and indeed the strong relationship she has built up with many of them, but it also reflects a certain humility as she, in a sense, leaves the final word with them. There is no doubt that these reflections will be useful to scholars and readers of Northern Irish writing, just as there is no doubt that Caroline Magennis’s book as a whole opens up exciting and significant new vistas in research on intimacy, affect, and pleasure in the often heavily charged context of the North.
O’Neill, Siobhan and Nichola Rooney (2018). “Mental Health in Northern Ireland: An Urgent
Situation.” The Lancet 5.12 (December): 965-966.