'Heaven Lies' -- the endurance of Ireland's agonies

May 02, 2004|By Bernadette Murphy | Bernadette Murphy,Los Angeles Times

Heaven Lies About Us, by Eugene McCabe. Bloomsbury. 352 pages. $24.95.

Set in the rural border towns in the north of Ireland, Heaven Lies About Us is a collection of short stories linked by a brutal and haunting tone. Glasgow-born fiction writer Eugene McCabe (Death and Nightingales) utterly nails the timbre and heartbreak of Ireland, that divided land scarcely one-fifth the size of California. Its political situation was once characterized by W.B. Yeats as "a terrible beauty."

Tying together the past with the present, McCabe explores Ireland and its people in very intimate stories, creating a kaleidoscope of tales that sets into context the tragic and soul-rending struggles that continue in the country to this day. Violence, hatred, religious fanaticism and class warfare form the locus of his stories, with glimpses of genuine faith and compassion leavening the grim narratives just enough to make them bearable.

The book begins in the recent era, marked by bloodshed between the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense Regiment and hatred between Catholics and Protestants, then moves back and forth in time to the mid-1800s and the scandalous poverty and starvation caused by the potato famine (exacerbated by the policies of the occupying British), in which the population of Ireland was decimated.

In McCabe's tales, though, there's no one place to lay blame. All have blood on their hands, all are victims and oppressors, all suffer horribly in this life. And God, in his heaven, watches on.

"How can anyone look about the world and believe in a God? How can anyone look about the world and not believe in a God?" one character wonders, delineating the contradiction between faith and despair that shapes the book's core. "Is it some cruel game He's playing up there? [Leap] at the stars and break your neck?"

The title story tells of Marion, a young girl being sexually molested by her supposedly perfect older brother and of her attempts to get help by confessing to an uncle, who is a priest. The piety of Marion's mother renders her blind to her daughter's suffering, although it's taking place before her very eyes. In "Heritage," a young Protestant man joins the Ulster Defense Regiment at his mother's urging -- " 'I'll not ... hear a son of mine called 'coward' " -- and learns more about the hatred and atrocities in his own family than he can endure.

Throughout the calamities limned by McCabe, belief in God and belief in human decency struggle for breath. Two brothers, long-standing bachelors living together, hold conflicting views. "Religion puts people mad," one brother contends. "No religion puts them madder," his brother retorts. McCabe makes manifest this opposition, exploring it throughout his stories with a keen ear, sharp descriptions and spot-on dialogue. It's no coincidence, one character implies, that in the Irish language, the word "kill" (as in Killarney and many other place names) translates as "church."

McCabe's title, readers come to see, is a double-entendre. Heaven may indeed surround us with its glories and beauty, but the other perspective -- that heaven and the divine presence are mendacious in relation to humans, especially the Irish -- seems equally correct. "Win or lose nothing changes, because men don't nor women. ... even the blind know that light leads on to darkness."

Like the land Yeats characterized so aptly, McCabe's Heaven Lies About Us is, in every aspect, a work of "terrible beauty."

Bernadette Murphy wrote Zen and the Art of Knitting and teaches creative writing at the UCLA extension writers program. She lived in Ireland in her early 20s and is the child of Irish immigrants. This review, in longer form, was originally published in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.