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Desire Lines

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by Annie McCartney

"That book's quite good," remarked my seventeen-year-old, condescendingly, as I sat down to begin this review. My jaw dropped; it's almost unknown for her to pick up a book, especially one brought home by Mum. My instinct was that she had been attracted to this one by the instantly evocative cover art. In that respect, her tastes are certainly compatible with mine.

Desire Lines comes from Blackstaff Press of Belfast, a small independent publisher with Arts Council support. Anyone might be forgiven for believing that contemporary Irish novelists have only two themes available to them: either it's the author's experience of growing up poor in Ireland; or it's the difficulties of a relationship between a person who has grown up poor in Ireland and an English lover/spouse who doesn't understand. Happily, although Annie McCartney's novel touches on both of these, neither is integral to the plot. If I go on to say that Desire Lines is about a woman who has an affair with a priest, you might start thinking Thorn Birds or Pagan Place - but we are a world away from those particular clichés.

Cliché is not altogether absent. Here is the colourful chain-smoking theatrical agent, here the late-night phone call to a boyfriend's number which gets answered by his new lover. Annie McCartney's style carries many of the hallmarks of the first-time novelist: the detailed physical descriptions of even the most minor characters, the repetition of favourite phrases and metaphors, the occasional misuse - "the bond between them was too deep", "wracked [sic] with tears". A skilled editor might have done a lot more with such promising raw material.

But there is also a simplicity and freshness that I found endearing; this comes from the story and the unmistakably genuine sentiment that has inspired it. Ms McCartney sees behind the conduct of the individual lover, to her deepest-seated feelings, to every twist and turn of rational and irrational thought: "She hung on spiteful little snips of tittle-tattle. Making a nest of pain with these crumbs of comfort."

As one might expect from a writer who has already had some success as a dramatist, dialogue is a strong point, as is characterisation. Only in the portrayal of the hero, Father Lorcan O'Carroll, did I recognise weakness and a failure to deliver a rounded character. There is no real clue as to what causes him to fall for the narrator-heroine, the actress Clare. Lorcan calls her "beautiful", but one would imagine it would take more than surface attractiveness to make a priest give up his vocation after twenty years of celibacy. My money is on a mid-life crisis.

The story is, cleverly, told back to front, the ending suitably open - anything else would have been too trite - but I could have wished for a more thorough analysis of the motivation behind Lorcan's behaviour and, to a lesser extent, Clare's. After the careful build-up of tension in the first three-quarters of the book, the last few chapters seem to rush away from the reader, giving an overall impression of unevenness. The resolution of the plot is certainly not predictable, and the changing point of view in the final section, though unexpected, is quite in keeping with the sudden change of pace as the novel hurtles towards its climax. It's hard to explain my feeling of dissatisfaction - unless it arose from a strong sense that this author has not completed her development as a novelist. The acid test has to be in the form of a question: Would I be tempted to pick up another title by Annie McCartney? The answer is, unequivocally, yes.

ISBN 0 85640 702 X    Published by Blackstaff Press, 2001
247pp, paperback         Retail price £8.99

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Review by Deborah Fisher


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