‘This book needs an international audience’ – Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland by Mia Gallagher

bpoalhIt’s hard to know where to start with this one – it’s vast, it’s complicated, it’s brilliantly ambitious, but it’s bloody difficult to summarise without dropping some major spoilers, so you’ll have to put up with a certain amount of obscure hints as we work our way through an explanation of why we loved Mia Gallagher’s latest.

It’s a big novel – just shy of 500 pages – and it’s made up of six interweaving strands. First, there’s Georgia Madden, a trans Irish woman struggling after a break-up and convinced she’s got breast cancer, just like her long-dead mother; we follow Georgia through a hell of a couple of days as she records a tape message for her estranged father, who’s just sent her a mysterious birthday present. Then, skipping back some decades, we’ve got Georgie – Georgia as a kid – who’s living through her mother’s final illness and death, dealing with her needy/bullying/disturbed peers and figuring out her own issues. The third and fourth strands are set in the same timeline, give or take, as Georgie’s story, one featuring Davey Madden, Georgie’s dad, and the other featuring Lotte, Georgie’s temporary child-minder: Davey, in the wake of his wife’s passing, is trying to work out what went on in her last months, and Lotte is struggling to deal with her own twin brother’s death while negotiating the weirdness of the Madden household. Then there’s Anna Bauer, Lotte’s elderly mother, who’s being interviewed years later by a documentary filmmaker about her experiences fleeing her Czech homeland during WWII and her subsequent life in the UK, and, finally, there’s a, well, a guided tour through centuries of Czech history, paralleled with Irish/Northern Irish history and presented as a transcript of a virtual reality kinaesthetic visitor attraction, and if that last section sounds odd, it’s because it is. But it’s also snappy and funny and tragic and fascinating and, like the rest of the book, very, very compelling. The book’s not simply a weaving-together of loosely related threads (a seventies childhood, a war-time memoir, a futuristic history lesson, a look at trans life in contemporary Ireland) but a story that’s very intricately composed, with the different components all bleeding into each other via repeated images, names, addresses – even smells leach their way through. And while it’s intricately plotted, the author doesn’t do anything quite so crude as to spell things out for us: the text pretty much eschews exposition, with Gallagher making her readers work hard to follow her characters’ trains of thought and emotion. All the hints, for instance – minor spoiler alert – about the various Maddens’ relationships and problems with the Ó Buachalla clan are kept muted and obscure, much as the Maddens themselves refuse to confront their issues head-on, and so, with this technique consistent throughout (as with, say, Lotte’s thoughts about Ands’ death), the result is a text that feels satisfyingly weighty with hidden connections, echoes and layers of meaning: because the characters don’t spell out and labour over each thought or epiphany, they feel deeply real. (We particularly loved Davey, as imperfect as he is: the recrimination and guilt and panic and fear that pulses out of him in every line is superb.) And this effect of verisimilitude is reinforced because Gallagher lingers over each scene: while the book covers vast tracts of international history, it’s also slow-paced and forensically detailed as it tracks its characters from hour to hour. This makes it an intense read, and a slow one, but that hardly felt to us like it mattered, because the experience was so all-consuming. And thematically it’s absorbing, too: the exploration of queer identity and Georgia’s trans experience and the drawing-together of Czech and Irish political histories manage to link notions of the body and the body politic, and the idea of public and private histories, in ways that are screaming out for a re-read because we’re sure there’s more going on then met our eyes on the first go-round.

It’s a very assured book, then, and intriguing, and emotionally-rounded – but what didn’t work? Well, if we were to pick hairs, we’d suggest that the initial conceit of the explosion kick-starting the intermingling of stories is a little heavy-handed. And Georgia’s section is a slight misfit insofar as it’s meant to be a recording of events after-the-fact to send to Davey, but in fact her narration is very much embedded in the moment in terms of style and tone (see the ambulance and triage section, for instance); it, perhaps, then, lacked the narrative distance required by the epistolary mode. But Georgia’s sections are nonetheless deeply engaging and moving and interesting, and the opening explosion is captivating anyway, and, really, we’d be finicky curmudgeons to make a big deal of any of this, so let’s move hurriedly onwards.

Any Cop?: God, yes. New Island have done well to snare this, but we hope a UK publisher is also on the cards, because this book needs an international audience.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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