The subject of this coming of age story is Martin, an appealing 17-year-old who is not a successful student, his good friend Kavanaugh who is, and a recently arrived student who brings danger into their lives. The story is set in Belfast in the early 1960s so the priests are in charge; figures in the art books have been given India ink bathing trunks. The story focuses on Martin, who lives with his mother. The interactions of the boys are terribly appealing — they are very self-aware and caring about each other. But the best dialogue is within the little group that comes to suppers his mother makes, with the fat Mary Lawless, "Nurse" Gilliland (long retired, but still "Nurse"), and the easily amused, kindly priest. The language is terrific, all that sweet and empty talk that people comfort themselves with. Perhaps my favorite line was the appreciation expressed by Mary for the roast beef — "that roast beef was so tender you could ate it with your nose." What a concept. The plot revolves around Martin’s effort to pass the exams this year, having failed the previous year, and the lengths the boys go to make this happen. And when you pick up their lives several years later, the developments are very satisfying.
Although the church as represented by the priest at the boys’ school is portrayed in a very negative light, the human connections and values of Martin and Kavanaugh stand them in good stead.
I had a hard time remembering the title, because it makes no sense until you are well past half the book.