By VIEW editor Brian Pelan

In the 1980s, I was a young student at the Ulster Polytechnic in Jordanstown, Co Antrim. I can recall sitting in a classroom listening to my then English literature lecturer, Dr Joe McMinn, explain to us what the word ‘Bildungsroman’ (a novel of development) meant. It was my first time hearing it and I was hooked.

I thought about this German word again when I finished, with tears in my eyes, reading Close To Home – a remarkable debut novel from Belfast writer Michael Magee, who turns 33 in May.

The main character, Sean, is lost after returning home from university, and after numerous trials and tribulations, he finds himself again with a purpose in life. The writing is crisp, sharp and devoid of clunky descriptions. The line ‘living lives of quiet desperation’ by writer Henry David Thoreau, once used to describe the late Raymond Carver’s work, could also be applied to Magee’s book.

West Belfast, where I was born in 1956, has been subject to a range of ongoing stereotypes – ‘the Wild West,’ ‘Provo land,’ etc – especially since the beginning of the Troubles in 1969. Magee’s writing, with his sympathetic portrayals of damaged individuals, avoids these crass depictions and instead offers the reader an emotional and accurate journey into the heartlands of a community that has lots of love and humour but is also deeply affected by the ravages of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and alcohol and drug addiction.

Michael Magee in conversation with writer Wendy Erskine at the launch of Close To Home in Waterstones book shop in Belfast

The author knows and believes in the characters he has created in Close To Home because he has lived amongst them. He grew up in Poleglass on the outskirts of west Belfast. His novel is set in 2013 and, to a large part, contains Magee’s own experiences immersed in fictional accounts.

The story starts with Sean punching someone at a party and the consequences of it. It also portrays his relationship with his long-time friend and beautifully-drawn character Mairead, who works in a clothes shop. “She had been there since she started at Queen’s, and although it was destroying her soul, she only had to do it for another few months, then she was moving to Berlin.”

Along the way, we also meet Sean’s male friends Ryan and Flinty, his brother Anthony, and his mother who is trying to hold things together with few economic tools at her disposal. They have all been damaged by the aftermath of the Troubles and the global recession of 2008. The Good Friday Agreement – much lauded by the ensemble of ‘dignitaries’ who flooded the front of our newspapers, TV and radio stations in recent days and who received largely uncritical coverage from much of our media – was not, nor was it intended to, aimed at addressing the huge economic inequalities which working-class people face, especially in west, north and east Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland. Close To Home nails the myth in literary form that everyone benefitted.

Anthony, who continually disappears on five-day drink and drug binges, loves Sean. “Anthony leaned with his hand on my shoulder. Nobody’s trying to get to you,” he said. “You think I’d let anybody touch you?”

Those of us who enjoyed spotting geographical errors in the filming of the hit TV drama Line of Duty will savour the accuracy of city descriptions in Magee’s book. I was also impressed with the evocative description of life at the margins in west Belfast and the journey which Sean undertakes.

It took me about four days to finish the book. I loved the hope expressed for Sean’s life at the end of the novel, but I worry for those left behind – fictionally and in reality.

Close To Home is published by Hamish Hamilton, part of Penguin publishers –

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