Jammy Dodger by Kevin Smith
The Hijacking of Cassie Peters
Published in Books Ireland, October 2012.
By Sue Leonard
It’s Belfast in 1988, and Arty Conville is fresh from university. He’s Passionate about poetry. It’s an addiction. At least, it’s more than that. He lives it. He breaths it and is consumed by it. And he has the good luck to work at it, co-editing Lyre, a Belfast based poetry magazine.
Artie spends his days lounging around the office with the his co-editor, Oliver, discussing biscuits, drinking tea, and, occasionally firing off a letter to an established poet. It’s an easy life, but there’s a problem. The magazine depends on an Arts Council grant, and The Hawk, and his sidekick Stanford Winks are demanding more action. They don’t just want an assurance that the next edition will appear soon; they want new names, and poems that reflect the troubled times.
That’s not easy to produce , when the gigantean slush pile contains nothing of merit. As pressure mounts, and the arts council threaten to find editors who were ‘facilitators of more focused abilities,’ Artie comes up with a cunning plan. His initial act of deceit is so successful, that soon the duo are unwittingly involved in a scam of mammoth proportions. Will they get away with it?
Through all this, Artie is pursuing the beautiful Rosie McCann, but she’s starting to wonder what Artie actually does. As for Oliver, he is consuming milk by the gallon, collecting coupons, and composing slogans about the Sunnyland farm Bunny, in his effort to win a world trip. That’s when he’s not carousing with the middle-aged Iris, wife of a police officer.
There’s a lot of drinking, and partying, with a soupcons of substance abuse, and in lesser hands this could have become a tad tedious. But, after a rather sluggish start, the characters take a hold on the reader, and the humour explodes through the pages.
Smith satirises the artistic life of Belfast with apparent knowledge. The book launches seemed utterly authentic, and as for the scene set in the BBC, where Artie’s poetry review is in effect hijacked by the presenter; that had me squirming in recognition.
The troubles act as a backdrop to this escapade. They are mentioned in passing, but poetry immunises Arty from engaging too fully. Except that is, when a gunmen bursts into the office. His appearance, though, has nothing to do with religion or loyalty. ‘Mad Dog’ is a poet whose efforts have been ignored by the editing duo.
Arty escapes the marching season by visiting his parents, a conventionally materialistic couple who are bemused by their dreamy son.
‘I caught my mother looking at me in the same way as she might regard a plant whose flowers had turned out a different colour to the one advertised on the seed packet,’ muses Arty.
Once I got hooked into this debut, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. A journalist who spent time as a correspondent in Eastern Europe, Smith has a great way with words, and a distinctive style. With so much genre fiction around, it was a delight to read a novel that dares to defy categorisation.
Mary Stanley is another writer to forge an individualistic path. Known for family sagas with a touch of mystery, her writing is far from chick lit. She first burst onto the scene in 2004, with Retreat, and she followed this with Missing, then Revenge; and her strength has always been the dynamic of the family.
This seventh novel opens in the summer of 1972, and the Peters sisters are carefree. They spend their days on the beach near their South Dublin home, and their nights listening to the waves. Then their mother, Miriam, absconds. How will the family manage without her?
Karl Peters is an academic. He teaches classics at Trinity College, and revels in telling his daughters stories from Greek mythology. But without Miriam he feels powerless, and it falls to sixteen year old Ali to provide care and stability for the sensitive Mer, and precocious Cassie.
In reality, Ali is used to this role. Miriam was never the most caring of mothers. She employed an Au pair to provide that role, but the surly Elsa rarely lifted a finger. But its tough being her father’s confidant, expected to provide stability.
The family uproot to Germany to make a new life. It’s not easy. When Ali leaves for College, she rarely gives her family a backward glance. And when she marries, the gulf widens. Mer copes somehow, but Cassie feels the loss of her mother, and at 18 runs off to find her. And that’s when the trouble really starts.
I don’t like giving spoilers, but the title rather gives this one away. And in fact, Stanley opens the book with the hijacking of Cassie. Her spiralling thoughts are interspersed throughout the narrative, in a staccato way. This device adds both drama and poignancy. What, though will become of Cassie? Will she survive the trauma of the hijacking?
Stanley doesn’t go in for one dimensional characters. We mightn’t like Miriam. As readers we deplore her actions, and are frustrated with her passivity, but we have a little sympathy too. It becomes clear that Karl was the dominant one; and that, victim of a broken home, Miriam never understood how to create a fully functioning family.
Stanley didn’t make Karl a classicist by accident; the children’s full names are Alycone, Merope, and Cassiopeia after the stars. And the tales of these, along with those of Achilles, Pegasus and others, pepper the pages, and show how myths can be used to make sense of modern life.
And if this makes the novel sound worthy, it’s anything but. There’s a dreamy quality about it and a sense of otherworldliness. I became so deeply immersed in the lives of Stanley’s characters, that I felt shut off, for a while, from the real world.
This is an unusual novel, and is hard to classify. I loved it for its measured, many layered writing, for its mesmerising characters, but mostly for its thoughtful wisdom. This shows Stanley at her very best.
© Sue Leonard. 2012.