The summer holidays are a time of dread for Mickey Donnelly. Secondary education is looming, but the prohibitive cost of the grammar school uniform has deprived him of his best chance to escape from Belfast’s turbulent Ardoyne neighbourhood. This isn’t the only cloud hanging over the delightful narrator of Paul McVeigh’s debut novel, however: The Good Son’s early-80s backdrop is one of poverty, paranoia and violence, both sectarian and domestic, a terrifying world for a boy whose best friend is his little sister and whose favourite film is The Wizard of Oz. If McVeigh occasionally overplays the ra-ra skirts and retro advertising jingles, there’s no nostalgia in the depiction of simmering brutality and intense claustrophobia in a place where everyone – British soldiers, the IRA, the neighbours – is watching everyone else. A rare trip beyond his immediate environment opens Mickey’s eyes: “So rich people don’t have the Troubles. As well as havin’ everythin’ else. It’s just not fair.” With The Good Son, McVeigh allows the reader a similarly new perspective, a full-colour close-up of life in a no-go area.
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