Review: Mount Merrion, by Justin Quinn

justin-quinn-mount-merrionJustin Quinn’s debut novel charts a route through the last half-century of Ireland’s history. The undertaking is ambitious, maybe too ambitious.

Quinn, a poet with six published collections over the past 15 years, was born in Dublin and studied at Trinity College Dublin but has been resident in Prague for a number of years, and that journey lends a lot to Mount Merrion. While a former Government minister once famously said that Ireland is closer to Boston than Berlin, Mount Merrion makes several shifts towards central and eastern Europe – one chapter takes place almost exclusively in the East Germany and Yugoslavia of 1968, another stand-out series moves through the Berlin of the mid-90s, a Celtic Tiger cub in the latter stages has learnt his trade in Budapest and there is a peripheral Lithuanian love interest.

The story centres on the Boyle family, principally civil servant turned property developer Declan, beginning with a prolonged period of convalescence in a newly-built hospital in Galway in 1959 to his period in the media spotlight of a corruption scandal in the Dublin of 2002.

Attempting to shine a light at a vast swathe of Irish history from the 1950s until the Celtic Tiger is an ambitious undertaking and probably requires a wider canvas than the slight 260 pages of the trade paperback here.

The novel’s structure is at the root of its problems. The book is bewilderingly episodic, a series of snapshots cataloguing important moments in the lives of Declan Boyle, his wife Sinéad and their children Owen and Issie, for whom home is, apart from an industry-building spell in Connemara, the leafier avenues of southside Dublin.

The novel is divided into six chapters (dated accordingly: 1959, 1968, 1974, 1987, 1995 and 2002), each surrounding a particular moment – of crisis or coming-of-age – in their lives.

The trouble is that whenever the narrative begins to gather pace, it is halted abruptly and the action shifted forward half a generation, where readers must familiarise themselves afresh with the characters and their changed circumstances. So the Declan Boyle who spends two months in a hospital bed in his 20s bears only a passing resemblance to the one who lands a major coup behind Communist lines nine years later and to the grandfather figure who finds himself the butt of the nation’s growing anger after the turn of the millennium.

Such is life, of course. Which of us can claim to be the same person in our 60s as we were coming out of school more than four decades previously? Yet the thrust of every successful epic depends on the forging of recognisable seams across every major character and every generational shift in the narrative. On that count Mount Merrion falters, and that failing is impossible to overcome.

Still, there is plenty that is worthwhile. Pre-telephone-era Connemara, the scenes in East Berlin and the reminiscences of Nazism are potent. A party of movers and shakers in 1960s Ireland is well observed and the Boston 1995 sequence stands out: if Lucy Jordan, at the age of 37, famously faced up to the prospect of never driving through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair, Issie Boyle did not have to countenance that particular disappointment after a remarkable nighttime tour of Berlin.

A family tragedy is well drawn and, although the hurt inevitably dissipates through the passage of time, it doesn’t lose its power. The interior monologues of Declan and Sinéad as they recall their loved one in the final chapter are exceptionally moving.

The heady hedonism of early Celtic Tiger Ireland, characterised by tyro developer Mark Turpin and his beau, up-and-coming banker Verry McVeigh, is also expertly captured. One sex scene veined by fantasies about property goes closer to summing up the primeval instincts of developers and bankers which brought the country to crisis than possibly anything else in post-bust Irish literature.

On the whole, it is a promising debut, one that will undoubtedly appeal to a generous cohort of the southside milieu who will recognise schools rugby, Blackrock markets, Dun Laoghaire peer and the bars of Baggot Street and the Shelbourne Hotel.

One can’t help feel, though, that given Quinn’s background, we might have expected a little more lyricism, more magic, more poetry than we get in Mount Merrion.

Mount Merrion is published by Penguin Ireland and available from bookshops nationwide

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