Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
The Troubles are exploding – in the best possible sense – onto the literary scene: two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, Anna Burns’s masterfully haunting Milkman was awarded the Booker Prize. However, the novel’s success came with criticisms of its difficulty, with various commentators describing it as everything from ‘impenetrable’ to ‘brain-kneading’. The chair of Booker judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, didn’t exactly make it sound like an approachable read either, as he said it was ‘challenging [–] the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.’
This is not an essay on the relative complexity of Milkman, though, and perhaps it’s not fair to begin a review of a different book about the Troubles with a contrast to a Booker Prize winner; but then, what best describes Geraldine Quigley’s debut Music Love Drugs War is that it is the polar opposite of Milkman on the difficulty scale.
Set in 1980s Derry, the story follows a group of teenagers and twenty-somethings whose lives revolve around the Cave, a bar-like establishment where they drink, flirt and put music into the jukebox. The narrative revolves around the siblings Paddy and Liz, Christy – Paddy’s friend with a rough childhood and Liz’s admirer – and Liz’s boyfriend Kevin, an older figure with a shadowy past of youthful dissent. It’s all about boyfriends, girlfriends and trying out drugs until a friend of the group is killed in an altercation between the British police and supporters of the imprisoned Bobby Sands’s hunger strike. Friends and families split, as dabbling with resistance introduces Paddy and Christy to police raids and weapons that soon turn out to be more than just exciting, grown-up versions of childhood games.
The setting for this coming-of-age story is a brutal one and one that offers avenues of exploration, especially in an era and political climate where radicalization and schemes like Prevent are much debated. These paths of exploration are nodded at throughout the novel but unfortunately it follows none of them through; troubled backgrounds are hinted at as a factor pushing young people towards armed resistance, as are peer pressure, childish assumptions, and simple naivety about the realities. It’s too easy for the characters to slip from the Cave into ambush positions and ditch pints for guns, without much psychological reasoning on the part of the author. Had the character ensemble been a bit smaller, the narrative could have achieved depth over the breadth that is, as it stands, interesting but also makes the read as a whole necessarily superficial.
As such, Music Love Drugs War really kicks off only towards the end when events and rifts escalate, plummeting the characters into further tensions; here, the human tensions become palpable, and Quigley comes into her own describing teenage confusion in face of things bigger than they are prepared to tackle. It’s a shame that Quigley’s skill for producing page-turning human drama needs so many pages to properly warm up and reach its full potential.
The prose is very approachable and easy to read; there is not much in the way of embellishments or unique style, but in a young adult novel like this that can be counted as a strength. Regrettably, though, the dialogue merely limps along and sometimes trips over itself. Milkman – excuse another comparison – is consistent in its use of dialect, but here it is used as an odd add-on into otherwise standardized language: ‘One of the soldiers hit me daddy’, ‘Oh aye’, ‘Stop going on like a wain.’ Ayes, wees and me ma’s have a bizarre effect; they are likely intended to lend authenticity and a sense of geographical location but come across as unnatural at best, and a poor and unintentional – even slightly patronizing – comic effect at worst.
Just as a book being challenging need not be a weakness – otherwise Milkman wouldn’t have walked away with that Booker –, a book not being challenging need not be weakness, either. Music Love Drugs War is an easy read, and towards the end even a page-turner; but it’s more like trekking across a plateau than climbing Snowdon, because at the end there is no terrific view as a reward.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.
Geraldine Quigley, Music Love Drugs War (Fig Tree, 2019). 978-0241354131, 288pp., hardback.BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link).