As Strangers Here by Janet McNeill

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Reviewed by Simon

As Strangers Here (published in 1960) is set against the backdrop of 1950s Belfast and the terror of the warring factions of those who called themselves Protestants or Catholics (and acted like neither). Indeed, a bomb being thrown is a catalyst for a significant amount of the action. As McNeill writes in one her pithier sentences, ‘Martyrs breed easily in Ireland.’ But this is also a story that could have been told at any other time: the life of kind, cautious, fragile Rev. Edward Ballater.

Edward is watching his daughter-in-law, Clare, run the annual dance show for the community’s young women when he is called away to the police station, having been requested by a young man called Ned. Ned is accused of being part of a gang who have attacked a shopkeeper and left her for dead; he wants Edward to provide a false witness (which he refuses to do). While visiting, a bomb is thrown through the police station window and Ned catches it; Edward instructs him to walk of the police station, into his car, and drives him to an open space where the bomb can be thrown – to harm only them, if anybody. It is an incredibly tense and well-measured scene. It also (which is more impressive) somehow doesn’t disrupt the domestic scenes of the rest of the novel. Though of a different pace, it is of the same register.

For Edward’s life as a vicar is also balanced by his life as a father and husband. His wife is an invalid; his daughter is unhappy and lonely; his son’s marriage seems on the rocks. There are many things to trouble him, but Edward – great listener though he is – cannot express himself well, or find courage to approach difficult subjects with his family. It is a wholly believable and quite moving portrait of a diffident man, and one whose nature can seem at odds to his vocation. Having grown up in a vicarage, I am always interested to see how others will depict it – particularly that curious mix of closeness and distance that a vicar may feel with his parishioners. The vicarage door is always open and a vicar’s working hours can never truly be said to stop – yet the vicar is not everyone’s friend, despite fulfilling many of the qualities of a friend. McNeill depicts this so well that I find myself wondering if she was the daughter or wife of a clergyman.

He had become accustomed, through his calling, to find himself isolated from informal friendships and he no longer resented it. The isolation made his work easier both for him and for his people, and imposed on the intimacy into which he was sometimes thrust a clinical quality. He could listen to words spoken in moments of extremity – heartbreak, remorse, fear – and then a couple of months, even weeks later, could pass with a friendly greeting and without curiosity the same woman when he met her in the street, knowing that she was as glad of his renewed informality as she been of his spiritual comfort.

And so the novel continues. If McNeill doesn’t have quite that ineffable quality which turns a portrait of a character or community into a timeless masterpiece (in the way of, say, Eudora Welty or Marilynne Robinson), then she is certainly a very capable novelist. She demonstrates subtleties of emotion so well, and has a particular ability to draw scenes where characters are not saying all that they feel. It is perhaps a shame that she doesn’t trust entirely to these strengths in her plotting, turning occasionally to the overblown. But that is a small concern.

Perhaps I should finish this review with the quotation from which the title is drawn, which is quoted in the novel: ‘We walk by faith as strangers here / But God will call us home.’ For Edward, for Ned, and for 1950s Belfast, the question of home is far from settled.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Janet McNeill, As Strangers Here (Turnpike Books, 2015). 978-0957233683, 192pp., paperback.

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