The Irish novelist, twice Booker shortlisted for The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, returns with the story of Dan and Una Fogarty, the children of a family who have been forced to emigrate to England from rural Ireland in the 1950s. The action switches between the psychedelic excesses of a squat in Kilburn in the early 1970s and a contemporary care home in Margate, where Una’s mind is beginning to unravel. It is a novel that overflows with energy, and is crammed with unforgettable characters, all of it narrated from within the troubled – and troubling – mind of Dan Fogarty.
Where does the story of the Fogartys come from?
From many different places. I had always wanted to write about the Irish in England and had over the years gathered lots of bits and pieces of story, but none of it really gelled. I’ve spent many years in London and love the city, but I’ve learned to be patient. Edna O’Brien once said that writing is the process of lying in wait for yourself, and that was the case with this book. When it arrived, I felt like I’d found a home for all kinds of things I’d come into contact with, orally and visually.
The first thing a reader will notice is the richness of the language – it’s written in a kind of freewheeling prose that seems closer to Beat poetry at times.
Well, it owes something to the spirit of the Beats – and approaching it as a kind of Gaelic version of Ginsberg’s Howl isn’t a bad place to start. But the form took me a long time to find. It’s very different from my other books – looser, less to do with social realism, liberated from the tyranny of fact – but flexible enough to be able to record the whole range of a person’s consciousness.
How did you know when you’d found the right style?
The opening passage quotes lines from a traditional Irish song called Killiburn Brae. The rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of that song unlocked something. I knew then that the book was going to assume the shape of a traditional ballad – a sort of mischievous epic poem. I’d written thousands of handwritten pages over the years and some bits became the rockabilly poetry of Heartland and others became a wistful sequel to The Butcher Boy, but when the Poguemahone voice took hold, I knew I’d found something that would allow me to mesh together writing about London and the Irish in London in a way I’d never managed before.
You make it sound like a form of demonic possession!
I think writing – well, my writing – is like that. I was raised a Catholic, so I’m very comfortable with the supernatural.
Despite its original style, the book isn’t at all hard to read and it does have a compelling plot. I was reminded of David Lynch at various points.
Well, that’s the highest form of praise for me. And the story is important – you need it to keep people paying attention. That’s something David Lynch understands, for sure.
And – without giving too much away – the novel’s ending is worthy of a horror novel.
I’m glad you thought so. You never quite know where a book will take you – I don’t think I’d be able to write a novel if I did know that in advance. You don’t write solely to communicate.
Did you find writing about London rather than small-town Ireland liberating?
I did, although the London I write about is a small town that just happens to have 10 million people in it. And the London in my mind is another place entirely, much more colourful and exotic, a place of miracles, like a Powell and Pressburger movie. Think of the Catholic psychedelia of Pressburger’s film Miracle in Soho – that was the atmosphere I was plugging into as I wrote.
What about literary inspirations? You’ve often mentioned Ian McEwan as a writer you admire.
There’s a particular story of his that has haunted me for decades and which influenced my treatment of the character of Una in the book. It’s Last Day of Summer from his first collection, set in a squat and featuring an overweight young woman who is mocked and bullied. It’s an astonishingly wise and unnerving story, and all the more amazing when you think he was only in his early twenties when he wrote it.
As we’ve mentioned, the book moves between the natural and the supernatural very easily – it’s almost as if the characters live in English but think and feel in Irish.
I’ve always felt the two cultures are much closer than most people think, certainly in terms of popular culture: music, radio and TV shows and the like. But the stuff we carry round inside us is older and stranger than any national culture. And being faithful to that deep irrational stuff is important. I think and hope I’ve done that better in Poguemahone than any of my previous novels.
Why is that important to you?
Well, I think art should be about more than being uplifting or offering consolation. You can buy fridge magnets for that. The world is a strange, dark, mysterious place. And a novel is a way of communicating that in all its enduring perplexity.
So novels still have things to teach us?
I think so. I mean, we’re still trying to figure out the great novels. I’ve always thought of my books as being in the tradition of Come All Ye songs – you know, come in, sit down and let me tell you a tale. They’re driven by a yearning to share. Because I don’t understand the world either. But maybe by sharing stories we can work it out together. Engaging with a novel offers us the chance to decode some of the mysteries.