Sean Maguire was supposed to be the exception. After making it out of a West Belfast community haunted by economic precarity and the ever-present ghost of the Troubles, Sean was destined to get his college degree in Liverpool and never return. But outpacing your past, and leaving behind the city that molded you, is easier said than done. Close to Home soon finds Sean back home, working dead-end jobs that help him scrape together enough cash to sustain an increasingly troubling coke habit, and completing two hundred hours of community service he was sentenced to for knocking a stranger out cold.
Close to Home, West Belfast-bred Michael Magee’s debut novel, is a stunning, devastating portrait of masculinity as shaped by historical traumas, economic precarity, and a community that values stoicism above all else: “I went quiet,” says Sean, “I drank vodka, I took lines… I never said anything, because any time I did, I had the feeling that they didn’t want to hear it.” The novel’s first person lens is hyper-focused on Sean, yet it also leaves room for other stories as Sean’s tendency towards silence allows Close to Home to meander in and out of the lives of a colorful cast of authentic Belfast characters: his boisterous brothers; his troubled mother; his hard-partying friends. Sean pays close attention to his loved ones, who he clearly has genuine affection for, but Magee’s novel walks a fine line as it simultaneously serves as a love letter to his hometown and as a story about Sean’s attempts to transcend the confines of his West Belfast upbringing.
This push and pull—between Sean’s loving the town that molded him and resenting the limits it imposed upon him—looms over every page in this subtly ambitious work of fiction. Close to Home is, at times, dressed up as a 300-page party, but don’t be fooled by the drug-use, the lively bar scene, and the casual, slang-forward conversations; this is a novel with considerable depth and emotional heft, as raucous partying and cocaine binges quickly transform into moments of real sentiment, moments of genuine insight into a West Belfast upbringing lived in the aftermath of the Troubles’ devastation.
A lot of this devastation was, surely, external, as car bombs and gun shots reduced neighborhoods to rubble, but a lot of it, perhaps most of it, was internal, as Sean points out that “the rates of suicide were much higher in areas that were most affected by the Troubles…those were the places that had suffered the most, and they just so happened to be the areas that were poorer than everywhere else, even now, twenty years into the peace process.” These places are filled with traumatized Troubles veterans reeling from what they had seen and done. Sean’s friend Finty, for one example, grew up with a father who would sleep with a hammer and, depending on the night, either lock himself in the bathroom and cry or beat Finty so severely that he once even broke his arm.
Sean and his friends—all in their early 20s during the novel’s 2013 backdrop—may have been raised after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended most of the Troubles’ violence, but they’re far from immune to inheriting their parents’ trauma, not to mention they’re coming of age at a time when economic precarity is the norm and many young Irish people seeking employment are bolting for Australia. Sean’s college degree makes him something of an outlier among his cohort, but Ryan reminds him that it’s done him little-to-no good: “You got your education and all, but sure what difference has it made… You’re exactly where we are, and sure where the fuck are we?” Sean responds simply that they are “nowhere,” and at one point he’s even encouraged to leave his college degree off his resume since it may be intimidating potential employers.
There is, obviously, a certain bleakness to Magee’s novel, which seems appropriate, since there was clearly a certain bleakness to his West Belfast upbringing. But I’d be doing a huge disservice to both Magee and to his book if I didn’t mention that his dazzling, colloquial prose leads to moments of real humor and lucidity that transcend the novel’s bleak atmosphere. A lot of these moments come through Sean’s love of literature, as Close to Home has something of a writerly bildungsroman woven through it. Some of these moments come through Sean’s wholly affecting relationship with Mairéad, a friend and potential love interest who is soon leaving Belfast for Berlin. But the majority of these moments come in the interplay between friends, in the sheer authenticity and intimacy of the way Sean and co. interact with each other, a routine of slang-filled banter that Sean can’t help but love even if he acknowledges its repetitiveness, even if he knows it obscures the fact that all of them, and all of their families, are shouldering heavy burdens:
We talked our way into the morning. The same stories with the same punchlines we told the last time we were on the rip, and the time before that. And it wasn’t like we didn’t know that we were repeating ourselves. In fact, having already told the stories before contributed to the buzz we got from hearing them again… Didn’t matter what anybody said really, as long as the subject matter was consistent: stupid stuff we got up to when we were kids, fights we’d been in, football teams we’d played for, and of course, the serious stuff. The early morning heavy talk we hadn’t got round to just yet, but which was on the horizon. I sensed it when Finty started talking about his da.
The “heavy talk” Sean speaks of is seldom dealt with explicitly—he and his friends would rather dance around such weightier topics with their casual, slang-forward conversations. But just because the “heavy talk” isn’t always addressed directly doesn’t mean it isn’t present, bubbling beneath the surface.
Close to Home
by Michael Magee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published May 16th, 2023