Paul Burgess’ first novel re-humanises a Belfast still hardened by past and ongoing sacrifices

White ChurchSo when an academic emails you and asks you to consider reviewing his debut novel, it’s time for a stiff drop of Paddy isn’t it? Either that or carry on wading through the few dozen ‘biteens’ of Twitter outrage that come through each day.

When Paul Burgess sent me his email flyer for White Church, Black Mountain, I only bought in after I saw the flier for The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants, which sets out to explore ‘…the least fashionable community in Western Europe’.

The line – first used by Henry McDonald in a review of Burgess’s punk band Ruefrex back in 2005 – even makes it into one of the key climactic scenes of the novel. [So, is he an academic punk or a punk academic? – Ed]

That’s some ten year itch and, I have to say, after getting my review copy on Saturday and finishing it yesterday, this is some book. Why?

Well, for one, it has a plot. In too many books (and films) which try to treat with the troubles, and more problematically what came after, dispensing with a narrative is often used to paper over uncomfortable topics or unaccounted for cracks in the broader official narrative.

But Burgess is commendably clear about the story he wants to to tell and doesn’t spare his readers (or his characters) in the process of telling it.  For the most part its done simply and at times with searing (punk) honesty.

The unsocial and unforthcoming anti hero figure of Eban Barnard is the central device through which the story is able to flip between opening and closing decades of the Troubles and the ongoing efforts to manage its troubling [pun intended] legacy.

In the process it gives the reader a cold trip through the tepid waters of a Peace Process which has seemed more concerned with concealing the sins of the past, and nailing victims into isolation and silence than seeking any form of resolution or redemption.

Burgess works in appropriately sparse religious themes and language (the White Church) to re-assert a firm sense of belonging to place (the Black Mountain) to re-humanise a spare landscape hardened by the too long sacrifice of the troubles.

The bodily sacrifices (past and present) which emerge throughout the book gradually become (to paraphrase Jung) the rock against which lives are shattered. But for all its realism White Church Black Mountain is a sort of grim fairy story of the Peace Process.

As Bruno Bettelheim once noted of traditional fairy tales that they intimate “a rewarding life is within one’s reach despite adversity – but only if one does not shy away from hazardous struggles without which one can never achieve true identity”.

Well worth the read, if only for a fleeting escape from the grinding deterministic modalities that are the prime sectarian legacy of the Troubles. More widely, perhaps we should just fix ourselves not just to telling more stories, but to telling more brave and purposeful stories?

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