The Milkybar kid is strong and tough.
First Published: 15th April 2015
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2016
Mickey Donnelly lives in Troubled times. Northern Ireland is at war and he can’t go too far from home or he’ll end up on the wrong turf; he has to be careful of the Protestants. Living with the shadow of a new, unwanted, school in front of him he tries to get to grips with girls and with being cool, particularly as the other children believe him to be gay. And there’s always his Da upsetting his Mammy, the parent he loves most.
The Good Son is a book set some time during the 1980s and 90s that looks at the conflict but concentrates on its coming-of-age storyline, blending profound commentary with the ordinary.
It would be quite natural to expect this book to hinge on the conflict but whilst it doesn’t quite do that, there is a fair amount in it that shows how life was, how split the country. McVeigh never shields the reader from the violence and he makes it clear in the way the fighting effects Mickey, physically most often, that he’s going to be blunt. Mickey takes a lot of metaphorical and literal punches, including from his mother. McVeigh also includes raids and the British – English – actions in the conflict, the disturbance of the regular people due to the worry, often founded in truth in the case of this book, that there were weapons and IRA members around.
But McVeigh’s setting acts more as context, as the difficult background information that shows what fuels Mickey’s behaviour. Violent evenings preface run-of-the-mill days in the streets, skipping and playing chase with the neighbours. Neighbours who may be harbouring army members. Just as Mickey’s family could be.
Mickey is ten years old so there are a lot of sudden changes of scene and a lot of talking about things that he doesn’t understand. McVeigh has written the book in the first person in full Belfast dialect; it’s quite unusual especially when joined by everything else and makes the book a little like Marmite – you will likely either love this book or dislike it (‘hate’ is a bit too strong). What’s true across the board is that Mickey comes across clearly, enough that one could speculate some autobiographical elements to his character. And the rendering of a ten year old is perfect in all its minor pomposity and silliness.
The drawbacks to the book rest in the structure, that use of childhood amongst the conflict. It’s that Mickey’s story takes place during one summer and whilst there is an ending the relative shortness of the book means that it’s relatively minor. It’s more ten-year-old character study than story, the voice being superb but the plot – away from the conflict – being pretty average; whether it works for you will rest on how much more you want to hear about the social history rather than the growing up. It’s your evening television series rather than a film destined for the cinema, an apt comparison to make considering the number of then-popular cultural references included (there are enough that one could argue there are too many even if it does show Mickey’s love of television).
The Good Son is good but as is often the case in situations where labels are assigned, there are also not-so-good times. It is best to go in with few expectations so that what works will work very well.
I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.
November 30, 2016, 7:43 pm
I was expecting something totally difference based on the cover of this book.
I might enjoy it as a ‘coming of age’ story, but not being from that part of the world, I imagine many of the cultural references would go over my head. I’ll also admit I’ve always had great trouble understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland. Again, probably due to where I live.
December 2, 2016, 1:59 pm
Kelly: It’s a violent book but not quite in the way the cover suggests. There are a lot of references, some I didn’t know myself, but easy to find online if you’re okay to research as you go.