The Fields Review
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Growing up is hard to do in any culture. But we’re talking about Dublin in the 1980s, where economic depression held the county in a bleak grip and the clergy still ruled with an ecclesiastical (albeit weakening) fist.

Kevin Maher’s first novel, The Fields, deftly captures this period of Irish history with all of the relevant pop culture references (listening to Bronski Beat or watching Valley of the Gwangi) and the spot-on character nuance (like “knacker” drinking in the fields, where the parents can’t catch yah) of a thirteen-year-old in 1980s working-class Dublin.

Our narrator, Jimmy Finnegan, lives in a suburb of Dublin city with his five sisters, the steady hand of his mother, and the stern personality of his dying father. Jimmy comes of age when he falls in love with neighborhood girl, Saidhbh Donohue (pronounced “Sive;” Irish names and spelling are a dyslexic’s nightmare). Saidhbh is four years older than Jimmy and on the verge of leaving secondary school. Unlike the average Dublin teenager—at least in my humble experience—Jimmy gets to experiment early with sex, until Saidhbh becomes pregnant. That’s only one storyline—enough for a whole novel in itself.

In another plot line, Jimmy is picked to be an altar boy (a very prestigious position for a young Catholic boy and his mother) by local priest Fr. O’Culigeen. Unfortunately, Fr. O’ Culigeen turns out to be a bit of a child molester and rapes Jimmy multiple times. Maher negotiates this plot line with an understated, pitch-black wit as Jimmy holds in this secret while in a relationship with Saidhbh.

In a third story line, Jimmy and Saidhbh head to visit his aunt in England, ostensibly to get an abortion (big no-no in the Ireland of the ‘80s), but they end up staying. Here, Saidhbh sinks into a dark depression while Jimmy gets work in a restaurant, acquires a group of flamboyantly gay friends, and finds connection with a “bingy bangy” hippy-dippy group of new age healers.

If all of this plot jumping sounds unfocused...well, unfortunately, it is. While I love the narrator and his humor, the overall story lacks stability and toward the end ventures into the absurd: Jimmy becomes a master spiritual healer in mere weeks, at the ripe old age of 14. Jimmy’s spiritual maturity is out of sync with his emotional maturity and simply feels awkwardly out of place in the novel (yes, he miraculously cures the family’s dying dog at the beginning of the story, but this magical contrivance doesn’t appear again until the trip to London). I have nothing against absurdity, but the tone needs to feel organic from the get-go. I need to know the world I’m entering. Inserting magic realism (I don’t know if this is what Maher is going for) feels like a cheat.

Nevertheless, Maher gives Jimmy Finnegan an original voice, eschewing quotation marks and melding the dialogue into Jimmy’s first-person narrative in a way that feels both organic and unselfconscious (everyone wants to be James Joyce). Shot through with both a distinctive sense of Irish understatement and self-effacing black humor, Maher’s Finnegan—at least as a character—rivals both Jimmy Rabbitte and Henry Smart from Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy and A Star Called Henry, respectively.

Mahar’s novel is better as a whole than the sum if its parts. If you can see past the unevenness of the plot, then be prepared for a humorous and dramatic journey from a fresh point of view. I only hope we get to see Jimmy Finnegan in another, less cluttered adventure, where he and Maher will continue to come of age.

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