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A private, intimate reflection on worst years

NI’s Jenny McCartney’s debut novel brings home lasting impact of the Troubles. By Anne Cunningham


Jenny McCartney

Jenny McCartney

Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan

Jenny McCartney

We called our situation the Troubles, and the longer it had dragged on the more fitting that genteel euphemism became." So says Jacky, the protagonist in Jenny McCartney's debut novel, a powerful testament of damage and trauma set in 1990s Belfast.

Jacky has never known peace in his home city, only a community divided and terrorised, where "the best way to persuade ordinary folks on the other side of the sincerity of your argument was to build a large stack of their corpses and promise more of the same until your demands were secured".

Being as apolitical as most twenty-somethings, reared in violent upheaval or otherwise, Jacky is cynically philosophical about it all. Until it lands on his doorstep, or, more accurately, on the doorstep of close friend, Titch.

Titch is enormous, ironically nicknamed because of the bulk of his frame. He's also gentle and quiet and a little "slow". Jacky's friend since their schooldays, he's got an occasional shoplifting habit, though only for sweet things, and early on he's caught by McGee - a local shopkeeper with Loyalist paramilitary connections and a racketeering, vicious adult son - stealing a packet of Jaffa Cakes. Soon afterwards, Titch is dragged from his bed by McGee Junior and his lackeys and a savage beating is meted out, leaving Titch in hospital and permanently disturbed. Jacky's blood is up, but his dead father's old friend, Murdie (one of the more carefully-drawn characters, although a minor one), persuades him to leave things alone.

Some time later, when goaded by McGee Junior in a bar, Jacky lands him a punch that knocks him to the ground. The inexorable consequences for Jacky are horrific. As he's now a marked man he has no choice but to flee Northern Ireland and, with Murdie's help, he heads to London.

"I moved from a place where I mattered, but in the wrong style, to a place where I didn't matter at all. But I knew then that people don't come to an unfamiliar city just to get away from their old homes, but also to escape their old selves."

Jacky's problem in London is that he simply can't recover from his PTSD. He's in a sea of strangers with a new job and even a new love interest, but nothing can quell the silent anger that's roasting him alive. Further bad news about poor Titch arrives from Belfast and finally Jacky has had enough. He decides to embark on the path of retribution.

We are reminded by this and other novels that the paramilitaries were just as ready to take out "one of their own" as they were to obliterate the perceived enemy. Thuggery knows no boundaries and, despite the Peace Agreement, it's obvious that Northern Ireland is full of scarred and haunted souls, innocent people uninvolved with the "struggle", whose lives have been permanently tainted by the actions of terrorists.

While the Troubles appear to be having a "moment" these days, we must remember that it's taken more than 20 years of peace to get this far. And as a private, intimate reflection on what it was like to live through the worst years of the violence, this novel is unrivalled.

The Ghost Factory by Jenny McCartney, £12.99

If we build something that can learn faster than us, will it be better than us?\

Ian McEwan’s new novel, where artificial intelligence is a reality in Britain, leaves us pondering some big questions, says Nick Curtis

After the literary whimsy of Nutshell, a modern London riff on Hamlet narrated by a foetus, Ian McEwan returns to high seriousness with a novel almost too pregnant with ideas. Its main theme is the rise of artificial intelligence and what happens when machines can out-perform, out-learn and eventually out-feel us.

But it's also a "what if?" novel set in an alternative Eighties where the internet and self-driving cars already exist, Margaret Thatcher loses the Falklands War and the Beatles have "recently regrouped after 12 years apart".

To underline that this is also a thoughtful, moral tale, there are subplots involving the nature of violation and revenge, and what it means to be a parent. And a soupçon of juvenile gender-fluidity too. Even for someone of McEwan's fluency, that's a lot to pack in.

Anyway, our protagonist Charlie is an ex-fraudster barely making ends meet by speculating on the stock market. Nevertheless, his interest in anthropology and physics prompts him to spend a large inheritance on one of the first commercially available androids. There are only 25 of these, 13 "Eves" and 12 "Adams". His Adam arrives naked, handsome and physically powerful. Intellectually and emotionally, he goes from 0 to 60 pretty fast. Meanwhile, Charlie starts an affair with Miranda, a younger, improbably beautiful student neighbour. You can see where this is going, can't you?

To be fair, the geometry of the love triangle is not as obvious as it at first appears. McEwan's description of Adam's growing sophistication, from innocence to awakening to a sort of platonic equilibrium, is nuanced and thoughtful. The android starts composing haikus and earning large sums of money on the financial markets. This allays Charlie's anxiety and fosters his hope that he can escape horrid Clapham and buy a rock star's house in Notting Hill.

The science on AI in the book feels plausible, and McEwan seems to have done extensive research into the philosophical side too. Though Miranda is rather lightly sketched, the dynamic between her, Adam and Charlie is compelling. We seem set on a course that will reach a satisfying emotional and philosophical conclusion. But there are distractions. Miranda's writer father is ailing. A sex crime from the past brings the threat of violence. Mark, a young boy from a chaotic family who wants to be a princess, barges into their lives. Thatcher loses an election over the poll tax to Tony Benn, who promptly takes Britain out of the EU. This last plot development - like a jab in the eye from 2019 - is typical of the surprises to which writers of "what if?" novels are irresistibly drawn, and to which McEwan is not immune.

For instance, one of the reasons the world is so technologically advanced in the early Eighties is that Alan Turing, the great wartime codebreaker and AI pioneer, did not kill himself in 1954 after being persecuted for his homosexuality. Instead, he teamed up with someone called Demis Hassabis in 1968 (the real Hassabis, creator of the AI company DeepMind, was born in 1976) to build a computer that mastered the Chinese board game Go. Turing then went on to publish all his scientific findings for free, to fight Aids and become an eccentric hero to the nation (and to Charlie).

There are more prosaic temporal curve-balls. Super-fast trains exist in this alternative past but they are squalid, just like trains in the real past.

In Charlie's world, Joseph Heller wrote a novel called Catch-18 and Tolstoy wrote All's Well That Ends Well.

The Tony Benn of McEwan's imagining is a charismatic populist, part-Blair, part-Corbyn.

All this would be fine if the rest of it felt more credible. But nagging questions hover. Who invented and sold the AIs on the open market? What are they for? (McEwan anxiously tells us early on they are not sex toys, though they are "capable of sex"). Why only 25 of them? Would Miranda really fall for charmless Charlie? Would Mark really appear so improbably in their lives as a counterpoint to Adam, the artificial "child" they programmed together? And would Charlie really spend so much time saying things like "the future, to which I was finely attuned, was already here"?

So, Machines Like Me is a clever, densely worked but sporadically irritating read, throughout which you hear McEwan whispering in your ear.

All the various themes are duly brought together in a way that is perhaps too neat but which is also satisfying.

The final chapter is built around a richly comic conceit that isn't quite earned. But we are left pondering the central conceit: if we build something that can learn quicker than us, will it be better than us, in ethical, social and artistic terms? Could an AI someday write a book like this? I doubt it.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, £18.99

Belfast Telegraph