The Fields, by Kevin Maher, Little, Brown, RRP£12.99, 390 pages
At a time when the Catholic Church is veering between scandal and soul-searching, Kevin Maher’s debut novel feels timely and resonant. But back in mid-1980s Ireland, where The Fields begins, such church crises were certainly not reported or spoken about.
Which is how it is possible for Father Luke O’Culigeen, a priest in a Dublin suburb, to rape 14-year-old narrator Finno, and for Finno not to be able to tell anyone – because, as he reflects, the priest in Ireland is still seen as “brilliant. He could do anything for you, solve any problem. He was like Moses, or the old fella in The Equalizer.”
The priest tells Finno’s mother that Finno has to become an altar boy for the “purity of his soul”. And there in the sacristy, watched over by photographs of the Pope, he professes his love for Finno and inflicts awful pain on him. Once, the boy passes out and, as he comes around, hears the panicked priest asking God for forgiveness. Later he visits Finno’s mum for tea.
With nowhere to turn and no one to tell (not his mum or five sisters – certainly not his repressed father), Finno’s mind is blown, and he is soon in trouble for poor schoolwork and for getting his girlfriend Saidhbh pregnant – an act sure to bring not only the wrath of God but also very public shame for his family. His father could not, notes Finno, look him in the eye after this. But readers may more likely feel that the teenagers’ plight is just one more byproduct of a society where sex education comes via church sermons.
Maher tells his story through the alternately wide-eyed and wise voice of Finno, who comes across as 14 going on 40. Though he struggles to make sense of his situation, he refuses to give up – and his black humour lends a welcome surreal perspective to what, between church-sponsored repression and the hunger for gossip, is a pretty surreal community.
The Fields is an uneven book. Later chapters set in a London that is home to abortion clinics, gays and people not governed by fear of God, tend to wander. And early on Maher leans a bit too heavily on 1980s nostalgia and profane Irish banter of the variety popularised by Roddy Doyle, without (Finno aside) quite matching the characters of Doyle’s “Barrytown” novels.
Where Maher comes into his own, though, is in choosing to look back to a time when the reputation of all priests hadn’t been damaged by the crimes of a few. And knowing what we know now only makes the unknowingness of his Ireland more painful.
Neil O’Sullivan is deputy editor of FT Life & Arts