Three weeks ago, The Glorious Heresies won the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Last week, it won the Desmond Elliot Prize for new fiction. I was unsurprised. It’s a well-written, quirky novel of the seedy underbelly of Cork. The characters are vivid, funny, and tragic all at once. However, it wasn’t “fiendishly hilarious,” as The Times claimed. The novel is dotted with funny moments, but overall it just felt more depressing than anything else.
Ryan, his father Tony, Maureen, and her son Jimmy, Tara the creep, and Georgie the prostitute are all connected by murder and the drug trade. The Glorious Heresies traces the consequences to all the characters of Jimmy’s decision to cover up Maureen’s “accident.”
I liked Maureen the best. Inside her head is a funny place to be, whether she’s accidentally killing men or intentionally setting fires. Her lack of self-awareness, despite being in her late 50s, is amusing. She finds herself back in Cork after 40 years when her illegitimate son, and now head gangster in the city, retrieves her from exile in London and puts her up in one of his former brothels. I loved her narration. She was sent away after getting pregnant unmarried, just a bit too young for the Magdalene Laundries.
Ryan, on the other hand, is the most tragic of a cast of tragic characters. His arc starts out promising, with young love. But the dark side of his life is quickly revealed – child abuse, drug dealing, rape.
McInerney handles all these heavy topics deftly. Even an astute reader might not immediately catch some of the subtle events. While it is a dark novel, it certainly is lighter than most. Even the lowest points have a grim humor. It’s not always to my taste, but I certainly appreciated the irony.
The book certainly deserved its Baileys Prize win. It didn’t hold me the way that some other novels do, but it made me think, it was well-written, and it was definitely irreverent and a bit heretical. The Church, though it guides life in Cork, is secondary to the worship of drugs and self.
I’m looking forward to McInerney’s follow up to this strong debut. Meanwhile, go pick up The Glorious Heresies.