Mount Merrion by Justin Quinn (Penguin Ireland, €14.99 / £12.99)
A true novel of Dublin middle class life, in all its nuances, is a challenge that many writers would like to achieve, but few really do. Justin Quinn’s is the latest attempt.
His plot concerns the Boyles, a confident, middle-class Dublin family with a fine Edwardian house on Mount Merrion Avenue, acquired thanks to the success of James Boyle, leading barrister and sometime Fine Gael TD. In this enjoyable first novel we follow their fortunes from 1959, when James’s son Declan spends time in hospital, to 2002, when, now a prosperous property developer, he is summoned to account for himself to the Planning Tribunal.
Young Declan is idealistic; he wants to contribute to Ireland’s economic development, and opts for a career in the Department of Finance—much to the disappointment of his father. He marries Sinead, who is, we are told more than once, from the posh suburb of Foxrock, and they start their married life in a new housing estate. It will be, they tell themselves, “an adventure in modern living”.
But Declan comes to despise where he lives, and when his career stalls he cooks up a daring, and not altogether credible, scheme to set up a tractor factory in Connemara, using the contacts and knowledge he has gained in the Civil Service. He sees himself bringing some badly needed industry and employment to a deprived area.
A son, Owen, and a daughter, Issie, are born, the business prospers, Declan turns his hand to property development, James dies, and the young family move into the big house on Mount Merrion Avenue. While Declan is pursuing his glittering career Sinead stagnates at home. Dissuaded from getting a job, she starts to drink. The decades pass, there is a family tragedy, Issie goes to live in Berlin, and later returns alone with her child to try to make a living as a journalist in the hedonistic world of Dublin in the Noughties.
The story unfolds in the third person, the point of view shifting according to which character comes into focus. Unfortunately, the episodic style makes for confusing reading. Characters are introduced and then dropped, or reappear after we have forgotten who they are. The narrative is disjointed, events are told out of order, and we have no real sense of a pattern being formed or a plot being built. The lack of a clear author’s point of view does not help.
This is a novel set in real places, in specific periods, but with a sometimes uncertain grasp of detail. The title itself is misleading: the leafy 20th-Century suburb, Mount Merrion, does not appear in the book; the wide, mile-long Mount Merrion Avenue sweeping down to the sea at Blackrock, where the Boyles’ house is located, is not part of it. The Russell Hotel, name-checked in the 1987 chapter, closed in 1974; Cecil King was not ‘Ireland’s only abstract modernist’.
There are some unfortunate Americanisms: Sinead refers to curtains as ‘drapes’; a funeral service, usually called a ‘removal’ is here referred to as ‘the viewing’.
The casual promiscuity of the cynical younger characters is matched by the older Boyles’ moral blindness. Going through old cheque stubs while listing for the Planning Tribunal the payments he has made to politicians over the years, Declan is surprised to see that ‘around 1980 the amounts started moving into five figures’.
There is no hint of regret, some recognition of standards betrayed. It is a pity such a theme was not developed in this readable, but ultimately unsatisfying novel.