Trespasses by Louise Kennedy review – love amid the Troubles

Set in 1975, this masterly novel about a young Catholic woman and a married older Protestant has a quality rare in fiction – a sense of utter conviction

It’s easy to imagine a conversation about Louise Kennedy’s debut novel, Trespasses, that goes something like this: “What’s it about?” “Well, it’s about a young Catholic woman in Belfast in the 70s, at the height of the Troubles.” “Punishment beatings, bomb scares, all of that?” “Yes, all of that.” “Does her dad die?” “Well, yes, actually. Her dad is dead when the book begins.” “Does she fall in love with a Protestant?” “Well, yes, she does fall in love with a Protestant, as it happens. In this case an attractive married lawyer who’s committed to civil rights for Catholics.” “Do things go tragically wrong for sectarian reasons?” “It is strongly intimated that this is what will happen, yes.”

Plotwise, then, we’re in traditional territory. The year is 1975. Cushla Lavery is 24 and works as a primary teacher in a school on the outskirts of Belfast. She also does the odd shift in the family pub, which is frequented by leering and aggressive British soldiers. Here she meets Michael Agnew: handsome, middle-aged, sophisticated, married. Michael is a Protestant barrister who defends young Catholic men who have been unjustly arrested. He invites Cushla to an “Irish language evening” with his bourgeois-bohemian friends, liberals who toy with pro-Republican politics. Thus commences an affair that Cushla must keep secret from everyone, on pain – literally – of death.

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