A tale of two tribes

by John Boland

Fiction: Modern Gods, Nick Laird, HarperCollins, pbk, 320 pages, €13

Northern Irish writer Nick Laird’s third novel draws parallels between a post-Troubles North and life on a remote island in the Pacific.

Nick Laird’s third novel is his most serious to date, relating how an atrocity from the past affects a Northern Irish Protestant family two decades later, while also suggesting parallels with a similarly divided society on the far side of the world. And if in the end these two story strands don’t really mesh, there’s no denying the author’s ambition.

In terms of literary celebrity, the 42-year-old Laird is best known to many people as the husband of the more famous author Zadie Smith, whom he met when they were students at Cambridge University. They and their children now divide their time between New York and London.

But he’s also an award-winning poet with three Faber collections to his name, though he has said in past interviews that while poetry remains his first love, he feels he’s “not bad” at writing fiction, either.

And he’s not, even if his first two novels, Utterly Monkey (2005) and Glover’s Mistake (2008) were somewhat messy affairs, never quite making up their minds what tone to adopt, whether picaresque or whatever. Laird would probably look back on them now as apprentice works, which is what they are. The tone is infinitely more assured in Modern Gods, as are his grasp of narrative and pacing, and his understanding of character and the dynamics of family life. Indeed, after the prologue’s ferociously unnerving account of the atrocity that will loom large later in the book, we’re offered a family saga just as engrossing as the one evoked by Anne Enright in The Green Road.

The family members, though, are very different, starting with New York-based eldest daughter Liz, whose feckless boyfriend has just cheated on her with another guy. This leaves anthropologist Liz in a state as she hurries to catch a plane to Northern Ireland, where younger sister Alison is about to marry for the second time.

Back in her home town of Ballyglass, life is no more relaxing. Estate-agent father Kenneth has had a stroke and is showing signs of early Alzheimer’s; mother Judith is battling cancer; brother Spencer is having an affair with his best friend Ian’s wife; and Alison, formerly married to an abusive RUC man, is jittery about her upcoming nuptials to Stephen, a kindly but taciturn man she doesn’t know much about.

Laird captures all of this very well, with many shrewd and often droll observations: noting, for instance, that Kenneth “had a remarkable gift for misery” and that Ian’s mother had loved her son “like he was a little prince, and it turned the cruel and funny boy into a witty narcissist”.

Then the plot turns, a local newspaper revealing on the day after the wedding that Alison’s new husband had belonged to the Ulster Freedom Fighters and had slaughtered five random Catholics in a pub massacre in the early 1990s – thereby bringing shame to the family and leaving Alison embarked on a honeymoon with someone she can’t bear to look in the eye.

The plot turns geographically, too, as Liz flies off to Papua New Guinea with a BBC camera crew as they attempt to make a documentary about a religious sect created by a local woman called Belef who’s broken away from an American-run evangelical mission.

The Papua New Guinea island on which this occurs is named by Laird as New Ulster, which you won’t find on any map but which here harbours the same kind of divisive tribal cultures from which Liz has long fled back home.

This is all a bit obvious but obviousness is not the book’s main problem from this point onwards – rather, it’s the amount of pages that the author devotes to it. Yes, there are updates to what’s happening back home, but these chapters are fleeting and soon we’re back again in New Ulster as Liz and her BBC colleagues cope both with life in the jungle and with the people they’ve encountered there.

This goes on for the best part of 200 pages and it’s not really very interesting. Belef herself remains an inscrutable and, indeed, quite tedious presence, certainly a lot less fascinating than the author seems to think; while the self-righteous American family running the evangelical mission are so sketchily drawn that they don’t have much substance.

And though the author insists on drawing parallels between the two disparate societies (Alison telling her father that “this family is like a cult we all follow but nobody remembers why”), the analogies seem forced.

Towards the end, with a reluctant Stephen agreeing to give oral testimony for an academic project, the reader’s interest picks up again, but by then we’ve spent far too much time in the jungle and are left ­wondering why the author hadn’t focused instead on the domestic and local ­fallout from Stephen’s murderous past.

The analogies become even more strained at the book’s close, with Liz reflecting that she had spent her life studying “how one tribe does this, another that – and all the time there was no difference, not really, just tiny variations on a theme of great suffering, great loss”.

In other words, we’re being offered truth and reconciliation, which is all very fine, though for the opening third of the book, Laird had been conjuring up something more interestingly complicated about how we live with each other.

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