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Belfast celebrates One City One Book - how we found a novel way of looking at our place

By Kerry McKittrick

IT'S the month of the year that all keen readers here have been eagerly anticipating — when Belfast celebrates One City One Book. Throughout May, a series of events will take place across the city, all centred around this year’s chosen title, David Park’s The Poets’ Wives.

And this unmissable celebration of our wonderful literary heritage begins tonight with the man himself, as David reads extracts from his novel at Ormeau Library.

Of course, David’s work is a favourite with many readers around the world.

Though the retired Co Down teacher’s work had been attracting strong reviews for some time, it was The Truth Commissioner, published in 2008, that proved to be his breakthrough novel.

This edgy, compelling tale about a future Northern Ireland where a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation has been established to offer possibilities of “communal healing and closure” won huge literary acclaim.

In 2012 he published his first post-Troubles novel, The Light of Amsterdam, which features Northern Ireland protagonists though the action unfolds outside of the province.

Now, The Poets’ Wives is another change of direction, telling the story of three poets’ wives. Two are real-life historical figures, Catherine Blake, the wife of William Blake, and Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. The third wife is married to an entirely fictional Northern Ireland poet, who looks back on her marriage to an unfaithful husband.

This novel, too, has won over the critics and if you haven’t yet read it, there will be a chance to win one of 100 signed copies courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

In the spirit of this celebration of the very best of Ulster writing we asked some of our best-known people what their favourite local title is — and why.


Kerry McLean, BBC Radio Ulster Presenter

I was 13 years old when I first stumbled across Bernard MacLaverty's novel Cal, picking it out from the ever present pile of books at my parents’ bedside. I was probably far too young to be faced with the content — depression, passion, violence, political turmoil, murder — but maybe that's why it had such a big impact on me.

At that age, I identified in some ways with Cal, as an ordinary aimless teenager, though of course caught in an extraordinary situation. Reading it again all these years later, as an adult and a parent, my reaction to the violence and the young, motherless Cal is very different but no less powerful.

It's a tale as heartbreaking as it is beautiful, as tender as a bruise.”

How we found novel way of looking at our placeThe write stuff: clockwise, from top left, Joan Lingard, Glenn Patterson, Bernard MacLaverty, Brian Moore, Colin BatemanSeamus McKee, |BBC Radio Ulster presenter

The great Ulster novel of our time? It would have to be David Park’s The Truth Commissioner. I first read it when it came out six years ago with a shock of recognition — here was a local writer who brought all his insight and compassion to bear on what was coming out of the news programmes and phone-in shows every day.

At the start, Henry Stanfield cynically observes the families of victims gathering before the Commission he chairs. The novel flashes with Belfast humour — “If he was a lollipop he’d lick himself”. Even as this place tries to reinvent itself, there is still “The curse of memory. Scabs on the soul”.

By the end, we and Stanfield are wiser. ‘Who is to know? Who will ever know the truth?’ David Park has said George Best could be a model for a writer, ‘Fabulous balance ... brave’. Like his boyhood hero, Park has rarely put a foot wrong.”


Mark Carruthers, BBC Northern Ireland presenter

I’m a big fan of Glenn Patterson’s novel Number 5. I remember reading it on holidays in France a few summers ago and yet it still managed to transport me back to the familiar sights and sounds of the city of Belfast.

The book is set in one 1950s three-bedroomed terraced house in a suburban street — and it very cleverly charts the changing narrative of the city over the next five decades through the stories of the successive occupants who live there.

Glenn Patterson has a deceptively simple writing style, but you quickly realise that through people’s everyday lives the book is capturing the changing story of half a century of Belfast life.

The Falloons, the McGoverns, the Tans, the Eliots and the final unmarried couple who live in the house come and go, bringing with them their prejudices, their secrets and their heartbreaks — but it’s Number 5 that remains the central, constant character at the heart of the story. I honestly couldn’t recommend it highly enough — it’s a very clever, revealing book.”


Carrie Neely, art consultant and campaigner for the NSPCC

My great Ulster novel is Joan Lingard's Across the Barricades. I read it in 1987 as a 12- year-old growing up in troubled Belfast. I found that knowing Kevin and Sadie were going through the same thing was very comforting.

As an avid reader from a young age, I found it interesting as a pre-teen to be able to read a series of local novels such as the Kevin & Sadie series by Joan Lingard. I’m not sure if there is anything contemporary by local authors for

young readers in Northern Ireland now. I’m sure we were quite lucky.”


Claire Allan, novelist

I'll go with Brian McGilloway and Little Girl Lost for my great Ulster novel. It was so refreshing to read a crime novel, set in Northern Ireland, which wasn't focused on the Troubles. It's a fast-paced read which really was unputdownable. Brian is a really gifted writer.

The book has done incredibly well and while it's a crime novel with a fairly dark story, it has showcased Northern Ireland and its writing talent globally.

The story just blew me away — and has stayed with me. As I said, it is very dark and as it involves children it’s just one of those stories that hits you in the gut. There are a lot of unexpected twists and turns and McGilloway does not shy away from uncomfortable storylines. I'm not sure I will ever forget the closing chapters.”


Noirin McKinney, director of arts development at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

I have just put down David Park's The Poets' Wives — this year's One City One Book novel. It is undoubtedly one of my favourite books ever by a Northern Irish author, with the final section set in the North, our acclaimed land of poets.

Park's book is a creative triumph. The prose throughout is beautifully wrought, and his sensitivity as well as his sensibility as a male writer inhabiting the female psyche are quite extraordinary. Lydia's story especially moved me; but all three women portrayed in the book are heroic in their own lives in their own right, in each case making huge sacrifices for their husband's work, which is ultimately our common artistic inheritance.

The book has left me with many questions vis-a-vis the general struggle by the artist in societies that can often be at best ambivalent, and at worst hostile, towards the work in question; as well as elucidating for me the sacrifice of life over art. Anyone who believes the making of any art is easy should read this book; perhaps then there would be some greater understanding of the nature of creative genius, underpinned by the dedication and sheer hard work that it takes to reach greatness — for the few who actually do.”


Lynda Bryans, TV presenter and lecturer

My great Ulster book is The Doctor's Wife by Brian Moore. I first read it about 20 years ago and have re-read it a few times since. I rarely read the same book more than once, but this one is different. The book is beautifully written — set both in Belfast and in a little village called Villefranche in the south of France in and around the 1970s. It describes passion, pain, love and grief. Moore writes about the feelings of Mrs Redden (the doctor's wife) so well it's hard to imagine the book is written by a man.”


Dr Damian Smyth, head of drama and literature at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

“That's just what I am — a Belfast fella. I was born in this place.”

Looking for the Great Belfast Novel? Well, with St John Ervine’s The Wayward Man (1928), the reader has reason to believe the search is over. It includes a memorable depiction, almost street by street, of the populous city in the early 20th century, largely prosperous but bothered by the social strains we recognise today. In Robert Dunwoody — a young lower middle-class chap with designs on the world — Ervine gives us a hero whose ambition, grit, endurance and charm mirror his native city.

Destined by his overbearing but still appealing mother for the Presbyterian ministry, Robert's quarrel with his family leads to a departure for the sea, astonishing grim adventures in Glasgow and San Francisco and a weakening of intensity in the storytelling as external events overtake internal reflection in the narrative.

But make no mistake, Ballymacarrett's own St John Ervine — playwright of Boyd's Shop (1936), biographer of Carson and Shaw, whose Mixed Marriage (1911) was revived by the Lyric Theatre recently — was a very considerable writer of visibility, reputation, skills and influence on social affairs. Though by his death in 1971 at 87 he was all but forgotten, The Wayward Man needs rediscovery as an engaging read.”


Leesa Harker, novelist and playwright

For me the one that springs to mind is Divorcing Jack by Colin Bateman. I was about 20 when I read it and it was the first book besides anything by Stephen King that I had read that wasn't a chick-lit or romance kind of book. What an eye-opener!

I loved the fact it was set in Belfast — it made it seem so real. I loved Dan Starkey, the anti-hero and his narky wife Patricia. I remember laughing out loud reading it and it prompted me to stretch my library to other non-romance books. I still love Bateman's work — the humour in his writing especially. And even more so that he writes about Belfast and Northern Ireland.”


Martin Lynch, playwright

It has to be any novel by Brian Moore. I'm a great fan and had the opportunity to talk to him at length when on behalf of the Creative Writers Network I asked him to lend his name to the Brian Moore Short Story Awards (now unfortunately defunct — but it ran for 12 years).

As it happens, Brian Moore was born and brought up a few streets away from me in inner-city north Belfast — he in Clifton Street and me in 19 Moffatt Street. His doctor brother Samuel, delivered me in the upstairs bedroom of Moffatt Street. Brian Moore’s writing style was terrific, so economical with words and always a great page-turning story. I think The Statement, about a Nazi protected by the Catholic Church is his greatest novel.

But since we're looking for an Ulster novel, I'm going to go for The Emperor Of Ice Cream. It's not just set in Belfast during World War Two, it's set in the inner city streets of north Belfast that I ran as a boy and know so well. I discovered Brian Moore in the mid-1980s and quickly read his back catalogue including The Emperor Of Ice Cream, 20 years after it was first published in 1965.

In the novel he gives us great descriptions of a collection of a varied bunch of Air Raid Protection (ARP) Wardens and their trials and tribulations trying to protect the citizens of Belfast from German bombs.

The scenes he describes as he walks among the rows of dead laid out at Falls Baths and St George's Market near the end of the novel are powerful.

His fractious relationship with his staunch Catholic father is another powerful aspect of the book. In this and a few of his other novels such as The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore brings my home city alive, giving me great joy.”


Former Army Colonel turned TV presenter Dick Strawbridge

The one book I can think of would be My Lady Of Chimney Corner by Alexander Irvine. It's set in Antrim in the

19th century and when I read it in the 1970s I was about 13 or 14 and living in Antrim.

It's a book about a very poor family and it was the first thing that made me stop and think about how others lived as I had quite a privileged life. Poverty and deprivation hadn't really occurred to me before.

It's a brilliant book, though, and it also taught me about how different families are able to band together and support each other during tough times.

It's not actually a novel, it's a biography by Alexander Irvine and there are plaques up in Antrim in memory of the family.”


Carlo Gebler, writer

My Belfast novel is The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore. I read it as an adolescent and several times since. On every reading it produces a powerful effect.

There are two reasons. The first is Hearne herself and the author communicates her specificity (she is a lonely, damaged, needy, alcoholic, Catholic middle-aged woman who yearns for love) with enormous tenderness and precision.

 The second is Moore's technique which combines third person omniscient narrative with first person stream of consciousness material: by combining the two (and he does this deftly) Moore both has his cake and eats it (so to speak): he tells his story and he allows us unfettered access to the private interior world of the people he is writing about. The book also has one other important virtue for a reader: you know as you read the book through that there isn't any flimflam: yes, it's fiction, but Moore hasn't made anything up.

This is the truth he's telling you and as a reader it is rare to have such confidence in what a writer tells you. But with Moore in this novel you have it and that's wonderful.”


Malachi O'Doherty, writer

I was deeply impressed by The Cure by Carlo Gebler.

It is based on the story of Brigid Clery, the last person to have been burned to death in Ireland for being a changeling, a substitute left by the fairies for someone they have stolen.

Carlo’s approach in this and other novels is to show how plausibly human the most barbaric behaviour can be.

The story is horrific and yet it is domesticated by the thorough research through which he has recreated a region and a time, rural Tipperary at the end of the 19th century.

I have a strong visual memory from reading the book, of Brigid walking the country road on a breezy day, a moment that is light and lovely and establishes the simple alternative of an easy and beautiful life against the calamity of torture and incineration that is ahead of her.

This is too lightly summed up as horror, by some, for it is a critique of a culture and a deep reflection on human nature.”

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