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I was born and raised in Belfast and I understand the challenges of growing up and trying to live a normal life in the late 1960s and 1970s against the backdrop of ‘The Troubles’, with all the fears, divisions, atrocities, tragedies and political bickering, blether and bullshit. So, I came to ‘The Good Son’ with some connections to the story and, especially, an ear for the way Belfast sounds in everyday conversations.
The novel crackles with comedy and drama as young Mickey’s outlook on life moves him back, forward and sideways from naivety to mature thinking to flights of fancy in his ambitious imagination. He loves his mother but hates his father. He loves his little sister but can’t stand his big brother. He gets on okay with his older sister. He struggles to make friends. He knows a little about sex but not enough to be taken seriously by other kids, especially girls and, specifically, one girl, Martine, who is his goddess, at least for a while. He is besotted with his dog but, well, you’ll have to read about the outcome of that relationship yourself. He knows about the clandestine comings and goings of shady people intent on doing terrible things in ‘the war’.
Mickey’s driving force is his determination to be a good son to his mother and to protect her from anything and anyone, and to help her financially as best he can, if only with a few shillings now and again. He meanders through the summer holidays in between leaving primary school and the prospect of joining big school. He gets into trouble and he gets out of trouble. Sometimes he attempts to swagger about like a big boy and other times he’s a little kid. But he is always thinking, analysing, dreaming, trying to answer his own questions about the world around him and about how he sees his future. He is, I think on balance, optimistic, in spite of all the obstacles in his way and the dysfunctional way his family operates.
Paul McVeigh has written a terrific book that uses Northern Ireland’s troubles to give the story tension and backbone. It is honest, raw, emotional and hilarious. He has filled the novel with great characters ranging from relatively good to relatively evil and his use of Mickey as the lynchpin is a triumph. It is impossible not to love this kid and how he thinks about and copes with his struggles. To repeat myself, the book crackles with comedy and drama, excellent dialogue and a conclusion that, as the blurb rightly says, underlines the notion – sometimes you have to be a bad boy to be a good son.