Close to Home
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023)
After being chosen one of The Guardian’s “Best New Novelists of 2023,” Michael Magee described the setting of his autobiographical debut Close to Home as a “place … obsessed with the past.” He might also have mentioned language. Because you can’t even talk about this “place” without taking sides in a centuries-old conflict that has left thousands dead. Consider a counselor from Close to Home, who mentions a “mental health crisis … across the North, except she said ‘Northern Ireland.’” This tells twentysomething narrator Sean Maguire “everything I needed to know about where she was coming from.” The irony—one of many in Close to Home, most of the bitter variety—is that far more attention is paid to the pro- or anti-British tilt of this or that phrase, than to the wide range of traumas inflicted upon Ulster’s war-weary residents.In the twenty-first century, these may be the province’s most pressing “troubles.”
It so happens Magee’s much-hyped novel—see the glowing write-ups not just in The Guardian but also Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly—is coming out just in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday agreements, which brought to the North a fragile calm, if not promised prosperity. “People … like Sean were promised they’d reap the spoils of peace,” Magee told The Guardian. “But the working-class people who were disproportionately affected by the conflict still have incredible levels of poverty. People look around and think, well, what was it all about?” Close to Home is a tough, tender portrait of one such artist as a young man, who is asking the same question.
Magee’s book opens and closes with violence, though not the semtex-bomb or armalite-rifle variety normally associated with Belfast. Sean, his family and friends, have their scars and “tribal tattoos.” And they walk, literally, in the shadows of martyrs—the dead memorialized by murals that still dominate the lanes of Belfast. One, of 1981 hunger striker Bobby Sands, is based on “the same portrait they used for everything else,” Sean observes—as if, by the 2010s, these artworks are not much more than visual pollution. The decades of violence, rebel tunes, and post-traumatic stressors have left Sean’s generation with bleak prospects, and parents “sniffing glue,” or going “to bed with a hammer.” A friend of Sean’s emphasizes that he’s not speaking ill of the dead and wounded, not “having a go at his da,” and “what he’d done during the conflict.” At the same time…
[He] hated what the war had done to [his father], and hundreds of people like him, men and women who had fought for all that time, who had done things they would have to live with for the rest of their lives, and for what? The same settlement they were offered back in 1973…
The weight of the past, of history, is a central part of the story Magee wants to tell, about how a time and place can suffocate its people.
Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, as well as several still-stunning Dubliners stories, are kind of ur-texts in this genre. Yet even a polished Hollywood movie, like 1997’s Good Will Hunting, blended many of the same ingredients—young men and their hopes, dreams and rage. So it’s maybe more than a mere coincidence that Magee’s protagonist shares the same name as that film’s South Boston ruffian-turned-teacher, played by Robin Williams. For Magee’s Sean, as well as Will Hunting, adulthood beckons: Should they leave to live? Or stay to die? Sean has a partner in this struggle, a girl named Mairead. They reconnect—slightly older and wiser, which only inflames their anger. “I can't wait to get out of this place, swear to God,” Mairead vents, while Sean laments: “I had done all the things I was supposed to do.” Indeed, Sean is back from college in Liverpool. But his degree makes it no easier to earn a living wage, or to resist the good times and copious intoxicants to be had when the Belfast sun goes down.
Some of Magee’s most lively scenes revel in the reckless decadence of youth, crackling with an energy that’s fueled many a coming-of-age narrative, from Burgess’s Clockwork Orange to HBO’s Euphoria. It’s just getting harder for Sean and Mairead to ignore the fact that the sun also rises. Mairead admits to trying therapy, but adds: “Didn’t work. They kept making me talk about my past.” Sean, too, looks back, at the annual celebrations of local pro-British “loyalists.”
They had their bonfire on the eleventh night in the car park out the back of my Ma's house every [July]. She didn't mind, she said it was mostly kids. But there was that one time they tried the handle on her front door. She thought they were coming to kill her.
For his own violent outburst, Sean does community service at a cemetery—another landscape haunted by death and the past. In one chilling scene, amidst rain “pissing down, the headstones … getting pelted,” Sean dares to ask a coworker why he seems inordinately upset by a broken statue of St. Anthony. Swiftly, blood is spilled, and Sean is told, “You’re lucky I don’t smash this statue over your fucking head.”
Amidst such memorably charged scenes, there are others in Close to Home that meander a bit, and might have benefitted from one more round of edits. Magee also tests readers’ tolerance for college-age pretensions, though these are offset, later, by journal entries that compel Sean to admit he “didn't know what Sartre was on about half the time.”
In the same scene, Sean notices—next to his “university stuff”—a “box of … fantasy novels I was mad about, with the elves and the magic.” It’s worth noting that one of the great literary developments of recent years—seen in the work of writers ranging from Octavia Butler to Junot Díaz—is the bildungsroman influenced by genre-style “magic,” rather than standard angst. Close to Home could use an elvish touch, at times, to break through the thick clouds of Sean’s being and nothingness. Which may be why his penchant for cyber-stalking, or the sudden appearance of a “Google Street View” car on Great Victoria Street, create such a welcome sense of disorientation, in this ultimately raw and memorable debut novel. The “silence, cunning and exile” Joyce wrote of can only go so far in the twenty-first century. From Belfast to Budapest to Bangkok, history is a nightmare from which many young adults will still need to wake. But they also need to figure out if Google is part of the waking, or the nightmare.