20 February 2014

Review: A Different Kingdom by Paul Kearney

It is really good to be able to recommend a book unequivocally. Even giving a book five stars, I sometimes have reservation (perhaps I should be tougher) - but "A Different Kingdom" is dazzling both in concept and in execution. Not always an easy read, it still draws one in, not only to see how everything will turn out, but also to marvel at the sheer quality of the writing, the layers of story, and the characters.

As the story opens, we meet young Michael Fay, eight years of age, growing up on his family's farm in Ireland (Northern Ireland, that is) in the 1950s. Conflict is on the horizon, and Michael's parents have been killed in a car bomb (not as common then as they would later become) yet his childhood as described by Kearney is apparently idyllic: the descriptions of life on the farm - also, we sense, about to change, but still largely run according to the old ways - reminded me of Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie or HE Bates's Sugar for the Horse.

Yet there is a serpent in this Eden - as events outside Michael's little world darken, so tension comes to his loving family. At the same time, something... wild... seems to be reaching out for him from the fragment of ancient wood that borders the farm. There is another world in there, a fairy tale world of castles and knights. Of course, Michael can't wait to be away and adventuring and he find himself a maiden, and a Quest. But nothing ever turns out quite as we expect. Fantasy literature is often criticised for ignoring the realities of life: that isn't true of Kearney's book, instead we get a true sense of the struggle for existence, the mud, the cold, the blood and the desperation of a pre-modern society ruled by mysterious and arbitrary powers. It is, as I said above, compelling and the earlier, almost lyrical passages describing the beauty of the Antrim countryside only emphasise the grimness of the Wild Wood that Michael must journey through.

So it is a very real, very convincing story. At the same time there is a dimension of dream-time to the story. It is told from three perspectives - that of the growing boy, the grim, almost PTSD ridden memories of the older man he became, and a sort of in-between, where it is never completely clear whether the boy is seeing visions of the future, or the man is recalling the past - or both. There is the possibility, I think, that the whole thing is a hallucination (though I'm not sure where that places the climax).

In the end, I think, it's easier to say what the book is about than what actually happens - it's about history, memory, growing up, loss, change. The island of Ireland is almost a character in itself. All those "grown up" things that popular wisdom accuses fantasy of running away from are confronted, included and debated, but in the context of a magnificent story and breathtaking imagined world. Finally, the book also deals - in a tender yet heartbreaking way - with an issue that many fantasy stories involving children seem to dodge - what happens to them afterwards? Just as Alan Garner's Boneland recently portrayed, things don't go back to "normal"..

"And see not ye that bonnie road,
Which winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where you and I this night maun gae."

A magnificent accomplishment.