Content note for blog: whorephobia, sexual abuse, rape. There are also mild spoilers discussed (spoiler note in bold below).
The book itself requires content warnings specifically for domestic violence, child sexual abuse/rape, drug and alcohol abuse, and whorephobia.
I’m going to preface this review by saying openly and honestly that I don’t think I would ever have picked this book up if it weren’t for the Bailey’s Prize. While I’m a wide ranging reader, gritty realism and crime novels are not really my fiction of choice – too much intensity, too much of home for me. By reading along with a fiction prize, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and I tell you, if I hadn’t have picked this up I would have really missed out. Let me tell you why.
Lisa McInerney’s first novel is a tour de force of comic noir, a tale of characters desperate striving against poverty in Cork. Partially grown from her (sadly now defunct) award winning blog The Arse End of Ireland, The Glorious Heresies is a raw snapshot of many of Ireland’s forefront issues – the legacy of the Magdalene laundries, abortion rights or the lack thereof, drugs, and amateur gangsters. It is astonishingly rich in Irish life, and the reality of working class Ireland. I have become a monster and turned over page corners all the way through, noting important points, to the absolute dismay of my partner… I even broke the spine a little bit! Rich tapestry aside, McInerney’s prose twists, turns and jumps alternately beautiful-horrific.
We begin with wild and wiry Maureen, who finds herself in trouble after fatally thwacking an intruder with a piece of religious iconography. Enter her son, Jimmy Phelan or “J.P.”, Cork’s underground gangster-King, who ropes in hapless alcoholic Tony Cusack to help him dispose of the body. All well and good, until the dead man’s girlfriend, sex worker Georgie, comes knocking. Mixed up in all of this is Tony’s oldest son Ryan, intelligent beyond his peers, a natural musician, deeply in the throes of first love and selling drugs on the side. And finally, sneaking around in the background, is the treacherous Tara Duane *shudders*.
I found Ryan’s story the most gripping and desperately sad. Beaten by his father, too-clever, swept up by drugs – it’s a story I’ve seen play out in my own life time. He is witty to a fault, and absolutely besotted by Karine D’Arcy. The story of their romance begins with the heady heights of teenage love, all passion and all sex. But sadly for Ryan, things just get worse for him as the book progresses. <Spoilers>: Most notably, McInerney tells the story of his underage intoxicated rape by Tara Duane with delicacy, and deftly shows how survival of sexual abuse (as well as the domestic violence he receives at the hands of his father) changes him, infiltrates his psyche, convinces him that he did wrong. Rarely do novels (or the media) tell the story of women raping men, a crime that stigma has repeatedly suggested is impossible but is very much real and needs to be talked about, and this novel braces that with harsh reality and deep understanding. A huge content note for rape for the chapter What Tara Did on page 356 of the paperback edition
Another rarity featured is a sex worker character with agency, however she does fall into several sex worker character tropes that include being a drug addict, and being rescued by Christians. Georgie has roots in Jimmy’s side businesses that existed in Maureen’s house, buys drugs from Ryan, spurns Tara Duane’s false desire to rescue her and just wants to find her boyfriend, weaving all the characters together firmly. She’s an important character and I sympathised with her a lot, finding her story compellingly tragic. However, and this is quite a big however, there is a line on page 38 of the paperback edition that nearly had me stop reading the book as it does not come from a character’s mouth (where some of the more horrible lines usually emanate from) but in the prose – “When Georgie had worked indoors, there hadn’t been a shortage of inlets for numbing substances, all but essential when you were fucked for a living.” So, I don’t know Lisa McInerney’s politics, and I’m not entirely sure whether this was supposed to be an extension of George’s thoughts or the general attitude in the brothel, but this line did shock me.
I think what is further demonstrated in this book is the damage that Ireland’s stance on sex work and brothel keeping (i.e. two or more sex workers working together is criminalised, meaning they are pushed further underground) has on Georgie, and many real life sex workers in Ireland – to find out more visit Sex Workers Alliance Ireland. For an amazing 101 on sex work, please watch this amazing Ted Talk by Toni Mac.
It is only in the last 50 pages that the chapters begin with “What [x-character] did” where many of the significant plot points are tied up, which I absolutely raced through it. The Glorious Heresies does not ever pull its punches – it is a harsh yet rich book. I often had to put it down just to recover!
Thanks so much to John Murray for sweetly sending a copy over to me.
Why should it win?
The Glorious Heresies is gritty, raw and honest, finding roots in its author’s biographical writing about the city of Cork. The novel tackles difficult subjects and Ireland’s current issues with care, while sending jab after jab at the characters and the reader.