Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2018

This Human Season, by Louise Dean

My extravagance on #LoveYourBookShop Day meant that I needed to make some room on the D-shelf, so although I’m still reading Nicola Barker’s Darkmans by day (and loving it), I decided to read Louise Dean’s This Human Season, recommended a while ago by Kim at Reading Matters. It’s a very powerful book.

I’ve only ever read one book set in Northern Ireland – but that was nothing like as confronting as this one.  David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam (2012) is a comparatively recent book which makes no mention of the conflict known as the Troubles at all.  This Human Season, by contrast is grounded in the Troubles.  It tells the parallel stories of a mother whose 19-year-old son has just been sent to the notorious Maze Prison, and a man who has just started work there as a prison guard.

I am mindful that readers who have come to adulthood since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 may not know much about this horrific conflict which claimed the lives of more than 3500 people.  Events still in living memory are ‘history’ now, yet for people of my generation, deaths from the IRA bombing campaigns in Belfast and London were a regular item on the nightly news, in the way that Islamic terrorism is now.

Wikipedia provides this brief summary (lightly edited to remove links and footnotes):

The Troubles (Irish: Na Trioblóidí) was an ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century. Also known internationally as the Northern Ireland conflict, and the Conflict in Ireland it is sometimes described as a “guerrilla war” or a “low-level war”. The conflict began in the late 1960s and is usually deemed to have ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.] Although the Troubles primarily took place in Northern Ireland, at times the violence spilled over into parts of the Republic of Ireland, England, and mainland Europe.

The conflict was primarily political and nationalistic, fuelled by historical events. It also had an ethnic or sectarian dimension, although it was not a religious conflict. A key issue was the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Unionists/loyalists, who were mostly Protestants, wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Irish nationalists/republicans, who were mostly Catholics, wanted Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland.

This Human Season takes place when the British army had been sent into Belfast to try to prevent violence between the two sides, but inevitably the soldiers became targets themselves.  There had been a crackdown on nationalist sympathisers and hundreds of them had been arrested and were in the Maze prison.  As part of a protest to have these prisoners deemed political prisoners rather than criminals (some of them guilty of murder and targeted assassinations), the prisoners began a gruesome campaign known as the Dirty Protest.  (The BBC has videos here, but they are graphic, you have been warned). Inevitably prison guards became targets themselves as well.

The novel brings a human dimension to these facts of history.  John Dunn, previously in the British army, has taken up work as a guard because he likes having a job where he gets told what to do.  He doesn’t like moral ambiguity, but working at the Maze where he witnesses prison brutality impotent in the face of prisoner intransigence, pushes him to the brink.

Jaws went ahead of Dunn and shook his head.  ‘New boy feels sorry for the streakers’.

He was sickened.  He had never put a foot wrong in that way in the army.  There was no personal point of view.  There was agreement and silence and both ment agreement in any case.  By being there, by wearing the uniform you were in agreement with it all.  You were a fool if you put it on and you were not. You only had to take it off.

The class officer looked unimpressed.  ‘Oh aye,’ he shook his head.  ‘Does he feel sorry for that lad Garvey as well?'(p.75)

Garvey is one of the assassinated prison officers.

Dunn has only recently learned that a teenage liaison resulted in a son, who is coming to visit him now that he is an adult.  Many of the men in the prison are the same age as his son:

He glanced over at the grilles ahead that contained silence.  Terrorists.  Men and boys, all thinking their thoughts, killers on the quiet, minds like clocks that needed no winding.  What were they remembering, what were they learning?  Was killing educational?  Perhaps briefly, as a generation is brief.  The young sowed horror in their springtime with high hopes for the crop and it rotted down through a long summer.  They harvested grief in the autumn of their lives.  And did they believe, even as they held their grandchildren, that there would be an end to it all?  After a hard winter killed what was left of them off, it came again, this human season, this springtime of hatred. The young went to it because it was in their nature. (p.75)

Kathleen Moran has not only lost her son Sean to a long prison term, she is also frantic about her younger son Liam and his intentions to follow his brother’s example.  Her boozy husband is full of self-aggrandising talk about his support for the nationalists, and her daughter, tired of the conflict and the way it dominates their lives, has gone to work in England to get away from it.   Harassment is constant, and after the most recent search, a soldier’s boot came through the upstairs ceiling and the house is in chaos.  She is acutely aware that Sean’s life is passing him by:

When she wrote to him it was like she was speaking to the kernel of herself, the bit from which good things could grow.  Darling Sean.  The leisure centre was open.  Theresa, as was once his girlfriend, was getting married.  His brother was always at the rioting, his sister wasn’t coming back from England for Christmas, his father was the same as ever.  Aine said to say he was the best brother and she missed him.  She wondered if he couldn’t learn a trade for when he got out.  She was going to putting money by for him as soon as Christmas was done with.  She wished it were her in his place so that he could have his life.  She ought to have run away with him when he was a baby, they could have gone to the Free State.  To America! To Hong Kong! Or Ceylon! It wouldn’t have mattered where.  Anywhere but Ballybloodymurphy, Belfast, Ireland, the World, the Universe, as he used to write it.  She was praying for him.  She must close.  Tomorrow she would see his face. Wasn’t he always after saying to her, Mummy, will you stop looking at me? She would be looking at him tomorrow, whether he liked it or not. (p. 136)

The narrative tension arcs up with two contemporaneous pressures:  The dirty protest is getting nowhere, so there is serious talk of a hunger strike.  (In real life, Bobby Sands was the first to die in the 1981 hunger strike). And the assassination of prison guards gains in intensity.

This Human Season sounds like a grim book, and in some ways it is, but there is also humour and the banter among the characters lightens the tone.

The cover design, BTW is by D Wall and the Simon & Schuster Art department. I think it’s brilliant. The front cover is a picture of innocence, but the back cover is the other half of the photo, showing how violence was embedded in everyday life in this period in Belfast. Yet the guarded expression on the young soldier’s face says it all: I don’t know what I’m doing here, but I can’t relax for a moment.

Author: Louise Dean
Title: This Human Season
Publisher: Scribner, 2006, first published 2005
ISBN: 9780743240024
Source: Personal library

 


Responses

  1. I remember this terrible time only too well. My family came originally from Ireland, and my surname is common in Belfast. These stories are still potent, and sadly there are signs that things are worsening again. Maybe it’s linked to the rise in nationalism being encouraged by leaders who use it cynically.

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    • Where are MPS like Mo Mowlam these days, eh?

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      • Indeed. Now in the UK we have Boris Johnson growing in popularity- heaven help us

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        • Oh yes, he gets air time here too. Dreadful man.

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  2. I read and loved (if that is the right word?) this book back in 2010. I still remember the brutality of some of the scenes – it’s a book that really stays with you.

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    • Hmm, yes, ‘enjoy’ isn’t quite the right word… we so often need another word that doesn’t sound as lame as ‘admired’ or as messy as ‘was knocked off my feet by’. It’s certainly unforgettable!

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      • Yes but “knocked off my feet” is about the sum of it 😊

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        • Yes, because I remember those news reports, but they seem detached in a way. This makes the story human, about real people.

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          • It’s why I read. It makes things real, even though it is fiction 😉

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            • Yes, even when it’s a world you wouldn’t want to be in.

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  3. On my one day in England the IRA bombed the Parliament station, so I never did get to see London (we went to Stonehenge instead). I have strong opinions about the British occupation of Northern Ireland and I’m not sure I could stand a fictionalized account.

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    • Well, I think this one is even-handed…

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  4. I’m old enough to remember the Troubles – I think we tend to forget how inured we were to the conflict and the kind of terrorist attacks that still continue now, just from different sources. But it seems to me that extreme religious views are behind most conflicts, which is a great shame.

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    • The interesting thing in this novel is that Kathleen, the mother is very religious, while the priest seems to have lost his faith.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. So glad you took the plunge to read this. It’s such a brilliant book. Can I recommend you try Jennifer Johnston’s Shadows on our Skin, which was shortlisted for the Booker, to see how another writer tackles the Troubles? It’s not typical Johnston fare but has remained with me years after having read it.

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    • Will do, Kim. This book has made me realise how quickly everyone seems to have forgotten about this,,,

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      • They haven’t forgotten here… the whole Brexit thing has put the Good Friday Agreement at risk…

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        • * Smacks forehead* I’d forgotten, it’s the problem of having a hard border, isn’t it? Tell me, did anybody consider that while they were campaigning for Brexit?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Of course not. They didn’t consider anything practical or real 🙄

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  6. I have read The Old Romantic and Becoming Strangers from this author and thought they were both exceptional. Of the two, I preferred Becoming Strangers and still think about the book occasionally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, both on my wishlist now, thanks, Guy:)

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  7. Fantastic post, I really enjoyed reading :) And I really like you blog, can’t wait to read more in the future <3

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