Several of my favourite reviewers proclaimed it (Kate W, BookerTalk and Jan Hicks, for example). The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction judging panel announced it pretty vehemently too by awarding it first prize in 2016. Pretty much everyone is agreed that The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney is an outstanding novel. It takes the Irish Tourism version of Ireland and warps it mercilessly into something real and meaningful but also grubby and degenerate.
The Glorious Heresies is a darkly humorous excursion into the lives of people inhabiting the fringes of Irish society; consequently, the book is packed with vibrant and flawed characters. The story revolves around Ryan, who on the opening pages is a virginal fifteen year old but over the course of the novel becomes increasingly entwined in the murky machinations of Cork’s underbelly. Ryan is an intelligent, musical, thoughtful boy with remarkable self-awareness of the criminal undertow pulling at his fate:
‘What had he become, in his travels through the underworld? Just another cheating cunt in a city of cheating cunts. It had started when he was fifteen and he was stupid for thinking he could hold it back. The predictability of his transformation hurt him terribly. He hated it.’
Ryan’s life becomes enmeshed with that of Jimmy Phelan (as ‘conspicuous as an invading army’), the mob boss manipulating Cork’s criminal world. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s mother Maureen is an hilariously heretical Catholic who is as perspicacious as she is pragmatic about her religion.
‘They divide up the women into categories’, said Maureen, ‘The mammies. The bitches. The wives. The girlfriends. The whores. Women are all for it too, so long as they fall into the right class. They all look down on the whores. There but for the grace of god’. …
‘All men? Are they all like that?’
‘Ha! They’re divided up just as neatly, didn’t you know? Saints and sinners. Masters and slaves. The good guys and the bad guys. Like my Jimmy. Hasn’t he a role too? No one gets to the top if he hasn’t a mound of bodies to climb.’
Like the book’s characters which McInerney manipulates us to love and loathe in equal measure, the city of Cork is also presented as complicated. In one instance it is a ‘city in which its citizens were indoors drinking tea and quietly dying’ and yet its geographical familiarity seems like a source of solace to those who live there (it ‘spread in soft mounds and hollows, like a duvet dropped into a well’).
Put simply, believe all the hype that you read about this book and Lisa McInerney’s talent. Read The Glorious Heresies and its sequel, The Blood Miracles, before the TV series comes out. Read it to engage with another version of Ireland that St Patrick’s Day doesn’t quite encompass. Read it for the pure pleasure of consuming a novel that it as brilliant as it is singular.