I hesitated to read this, wondering if it would be too grim. Now I am grateful to have overcome that worry as it was so full of life, so complex, and so unexpected in many ways. It is set in Northern Ireland just outside Belfast in 1975, during the Troubles. This is the story of Cushla, who is Catholic and teaches in a school with both Catholic and Protestant children. Her brother runs the family pub that caters to Protestants and is doing well because those who formerly patronized pubs in the city are safer in the outskirts. Her family worked to navigate the complications of a civil war between the Catholics and Protestants, made worse by the English. We learn that:
In school and in college she had been surrounded by Catholic girls like her with whom she had swapped illicit copies of Edna O’Brien books and secrets. Cushla was the only one who lived outside Belfast, albeit just a few miles away. As things in the city worsened, she had begun to lose touch with them, and on the rare occasions they met now, they treated her like a tourist.
This 26-year-old teacher helped her brother in the pub often and it was there she met Michael, a married man in his fifties who is a prominent Protestant barrister. She socializes with his upper middle class friends to help them learn Irish, but they all know the two are lovers and their contempt is palpable. Her physical attraction to this older man is convincingly conveyed. She knew this was very dangerous for her as a school teacher, but she pretended others didn’t know because she was unable to resist.
Cushla’s connection to the children, their outings complete with ice cream for everyone, is heartening. She protects and encourages little Davy whose father was beaten and left for dead. She engineers a wonderful moment for Davy on field day, making him the final leg in a relay race so that all the others cheer him on. And there are the days when there’s a bomb threat at school and the children are giddy; “They love a bomb scare,” she says to another teacher.
The story does take a turn and the treachery and horror come home to Cushla and her family. Their connections to each other are threatened and their lives are upended. Nevertheless I would call this a heartening read, take my word for it.
Louise Kennedy, Trespasses, Riverhead, 2022, 304 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.