Paperback, 240 pages
Published: August 1, 1994 by Delta (1st published 1992)
Setting: Ireland (1960s)
Literary Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee (1992), Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Fiction
Francie Brady, the young narrator of this dark Irish novel, begins by saying, “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent.” The reader has fair warning that the book will not end well.
Set in Ireland in the early 1960’s, the story takes us into the home of the Bradys, a poor Catholic family. Francie’s father is an alcoholic, and his mother is mentally ill — my guess is that she has bipolar disorder. The reader lives in Francie’s mind, carried along by a stream of consciousness that reminds me a bit of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The flow of his thoughts and experiences is beautiful, brutal, and often confusing.
As Francie’s family unravels, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the Nugents, a relatively affluent Protestant family. Their cherished only son, Philip, is one of Francie’s classmates; he has an impressive comic book collection and takes piano lessons. When Francie enters Philip’s room, it is like stepping into a different world. Mrs. Nugent looks down on the Bradys and calls Francie a “pig.” This only stokes his obsession. And gradually, Mrs. Nugent becomes Francie’s scapegoat for all the problems and tragedies in his life.
We follow Francie’s descent into madness, which continues through the death of his parents, his taking work as the butcher’s boy, the only job he’s considered suitable for, and the loss of his best friend. It also continues through his stint at a Catholic home for troubled boys, where he yearns to get his “Francie Brady is Not a Bad Bastard Anymore Diploma,” and his encounters with a pedophile priest.
Throughout all this, the narrative veers between the real and the surreal; realities and delusions mingle fluidly. As he plunges into sociopathy, Francie remains heart-breakingly human and funny. And while the story is often disorienting and bleak, at times it’s incredibly beautiful.
While this novel was difficult to read, it is one that will stick with me for years to come.