“They were like a tag team, taking turns to fall apart.”
Set in Ireland during “The Troubles,” Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses (Riverhead 2022) is a weeping wound of a novel about womanhood, love, and family with a violent backdrop of the politics that defined Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. Admittedly, it wasn’t on my radar until I decided to read the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. That’s unfortunate because Trespasses is extremely impactful and well-done historical fiction.
Cushla, a young schoolteacher, tends her family’s bar on weekends. Her brother manages the drunkards at the bar, but he leaves Cushla to manage their mother’s drinking problem on her own. She regularly cleans up the vomit, soothes the cuts and bruises, and helps her mother to bed. Her relationship with her mother is frayed with anger, guilt, resentment, and love.
Cushla is Catholic, but the violence hasn’t much touched their bar. It has, however, touched her classroom. Every morning, she starts her classes with “the news,” and her students speak of the latest bombs and beatings. When one student, the son of a Catholic and a Protestant, doesn’t come to school one day, Cushla is horrified to learn that his father had been beaten nearly to death. The student, frequently picked on and bullied by his classmates, is her favorite, and Cushla develops a relationship with his family, including his older brother, Tommy, that will mark her all the days of her life.
While leaning heavily into the relationship between mothers and daughters and showing the struggles of a young teacher, Trespasses thrums with Cushla’s affair with a much older and quite married man. Michael Agnew is an attorney and a Protestant, a womanizing activist that Cushla readily becomes obsessed with. Their relationship is fiery and passionate, a burning flame that Cushla knows will never end with her getting the man. He belongs to someone else, but she loves him with the kind of love that hurts.
A bildungsroman shows the growth from childhood to adulthood, but what describes that sweet tragedy of early womanhood? The first love. The first loss. The first sips of adulthood. The missteps and the retries. Whatever that may be, Trespasses is that.
Read this book.