Reviewed by Laura Marriott
On a small crossroads near the bottom of Manor Street, one of the main through ways in Dublin 7, there is a rundown, abandoned pub called The Belfry. It was once painted blue with red hoarding, black lettering. It is now peeling and faded. In the two years that I have lived near here not once has this scene changed. Until just before Christmas a mural appeared. An almost ghoulish figure, a white face shrouded in a black hoodie with the following inscription: ‘Dublin Seven in bookshops now. “… twenty six years old the newsreader said the fella was shot dead. Then that vile euphemism ‘known to Gardai’. Deserved it in other words”.’
This is Dublin’s first introduction to Frankie Gaffney’s debut novel, a coming of age tale that focuses on the life and exploits of inner city teenager Shane. Directionless, he spends the summer after sitting his Leaving Cert partying with friends, drinking and taking ecstasy. Soon he meets a local gangland figure who introduces him to the world of drug dealing. The movement from enjoying weekend drink and drug sessions to selling is surprisingly easy for Shane.
—C’mere. D’ye know where I’d get a bit of tha stuff? Shane asked Griffo. —It’s deadly so it is.
—Yeah no bother kid, it’s always there if ye want it, anytime.
It was that easy. It is the tail end of the Celtic Tiger boom years and Dublin is awash with cocaine and eager and ambitious individuals willing to capitalise on this. Armed with the money from his college grant Shane joins the ranks of Dublin’s underworld. From this point on his life becomes increasingly complicated. He leaves home when he starts to make enough money and sets up shop until he is making thousands each month. At the same time he enters into a relationship with the beautiful but mystifying Elizabeth and his family still continue to impose on his life.
At first Shane is youthful and still a little naïve, but it doesn’t take long before he succumbs to paranoia and suspicion. Danger is inherent in his line of business. From his clients, others in the drug trade who may not appreciate this new up and comer, to the Guards. They figure quite heavily on the periphery of the novel, always on the edges, always in the back of Shane’s mind. This brings us back to the phrase on the mural, ‘that vile euphemism, known to Gardai’. This simple phrase is loaded with negative connotations. When you hear it on news reports and in the papers it is a way of avoiding stating that the person in question was a criminal. If they were known to the Gardai does this make them less important?
With this novel Gaffney aims to present a fresh perspective on the idea that all police are good and all gangsters are bad; dehumanised by the press who give them nicknames and sell papers in the back of their exploits. Dublin Seven offers a rare glimpse into the life of inner city youth, so often played out in black and white in newspapers and news reports. The setting is gritty and frequently violent. The novel is peppered with swear words, threats, and the violence that becomes a part of Shanes daily life until the novel reaches its thrilling climax.
The novel is informed by Gaffney’s personal experiences of growing up in the area and the criminal underworld that touched upon much of his early life. This first-hand experience comes in useful. The novel’s description and understanding of the drug trade; how one gets involved, measures out quantities and so on is clear and precise, having a simplicity and truth based rarely found in popular culture. He also shows how it can be remarkably easy for the situation to escalate. The setting, the background and the uncompromising image presented of inner city Dublin is perhaps the novel’s highlight. It’s divided into seven chapters which chart the seven main stages of Shane’s evolution — his coming of age from a failing college student to an increasingly successful and paranoid drug dealer — which roughly parallel Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. Gaffney has gone into detail about this idea in an article for the Irish Times.
The plot is well constructed and the central characters recognisable. The novel is told entirely from Shane’s perspective and he is the most rounded, full fleshed out character. Others, such as his sister and parents are less developed. In the end he seems to become estranged from his parents who live a life too different to his. His girlfriend Elizabeth, who seems almost excited by his underhand dealings, is in and out of his life. Although he professes to love her Shane doesn’t fully figure her out and in turn neither does the reader. Further the sex scenes are slightly uncomfortable to read and verge on gratuitous at times.
One of the stand out points of this strong and promising debut is the language. The characters speak in the distinct Dublin dialect, their accents shine through, broad, sharp and uncompromising. Here Gaffney follows in Roddy Doyle’s footsteps but takes it one step further. This is hopefully something Gaffney will continue in his future novels.
Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet.
Frankie Gaffney, Dublin Seven (Liberties Press, 2015). 9781910742112, 313pp., paperback.
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