Michael Caines, review of Glenn Patterson, Number 5 (Hamish Hamilton), 305pp., in Times Literary Supplement ( 11 April 2003 ), p.6.

Glenn Patterson’s fifth novel a novel about the fifth house on a Belfast street that sees five waves of inhabitants in five decades - is called Number 5. It begins with a surname - Falloon - and an estate agent’s advertisement for a newly built terrace house, “pleasantly situated in healthy rural surroundings, yet ideally convenient to shops and all four main churches”. This is in the 1950s. By the 1990s, when “the attraction of this ever-popular development will be further enhanced by the Little Lake shopping centre (with Tesco superstore)”, the house’s “original 1950s front door” is regarded as a selling point, along with the power shower, “mature garden” and “unique 1970s mural”. The residents are a man and a woman, separately surnamed Butler and Baker, but not man and wife.

Streets replace the surrounding open fields, but it is surprising how long the city centre remains “a three-quarter-mile walk and a bus ride away”. Harry Falloon instals a heater in the bathroom, so that his wife Stella can bathe their baby daughter in warmth and water. “But remember … it’s electric, so use it sparingly.” “You are like Adam’s ribs in the Bible”, says the aptly named Artie, salesman for the whole development, to its collected housewives. A “direct bus service” is still “pending” when the Falloons move out.

When Rodney McGovern moves in, he discovers Greenland in the boxroom. Scraping away the wallpaper reveals the vaguely familiar outline, followed by that of Iceland, the sun-imprinted hints of a world map put up by his predecessors. The discovery entices him to embark on an epic hobby, a meticulous archaeology of the interior that will submerge and resurface with succeeding inhabitants. The Tans, a Chinese family, quietly defeat the racist vandals who rip up their sunflowers. The Eliots learn that religion and art do not necessarily mix. After years of redecoration, “Rodney’s map” is revealed once more; Mel and Toni (that is, Butler and Baker) list the places that have merged, divided or changed names over the preceding quarter-century - from “ Armenia through to Zimbabwe”. Ivy Moore, at Number 8, maintains her church attendance and her gift of salt to the newcomers.

It may seem that all Patterson’s five narrators have in common is the roof over their heads, but their coronet of Belfast tales makes a truly satisfying whole. The inhabitants of Number 5 leave it vacant, but not empty. Inspecting the house for the first time, Stella notices a spider descend a newly erected wall onto a window sill and hesitates to crush it: “for the first time since I walked through the front door the house seemed alive and possible. For a while after it had scurried off, I continued to stare at the spot where the spider had landed”.

Patterson may be acclaimed as a chronicler of real life but this should not obscure his deft touch with such images, which bind together what might otherwise read as loosely related short stories. “How many infidelities have come about because a body just couldn’t find a way to get warm?” asks Stella, self-defensively. Mel and Toni, even after their affair cools, continue to sleep together. I was cold, is what we tended to say. I didn’t know about Toni but the word I meant was lonely”. The Tans leave careful instructions for the Eliots, on how to get the best use out of the boiler for a hot bath. Greenland, Iceland and uprooted sunflowers come together in the mind.

Despite its setting, this is not a Belfast Novel. Patterson’s previous book, The International (1999), was set on the eve of a single momentous political event in the centre of town, a hotel behind City Hall in Donegall Square. The narrator, Danny, works in the hotel bar, however, and is more interested in slyly observing the quiet moments between busy spells than the bigger picture:

I could give you the statistics you might find in any book - population, industry, numbers of churches and bars - or I could tell you that a week before the events I am describing I had woken to the sound of chickens fussing in the yard below.

Number 5 is no census either, although Stella’s gift for arithmetic threatens to make it one. Progress is in progress before she and Harry take up residency, and she attempts a “mental inventory” of the house, numbers the days and calculates the age she will be by the time the mortgage is paid off. The inventory falters at the kitchen, and “my mind clouded and the numbers darted away like fish under rocks”: The privacy of these days left alone in charge of the house and the baby can be deafening; Stella, feels “like the chief engineer, alert to every speck of dirt that might foul up the vessel’s smooth running. Other days I spent half my morning on the floor of our bedroom, listening to the distant sounds of building work, becalmed”.

It may lack the grandeur of Danny’s hotel, but the suburban street turns out to be just as international. András Hideg flees Budapest; Toni takes an intoxicating holiday there. The Tans send their children to university in Hong Kong, and the Falloons emigrate to Australia. Catriona Eliot meets her husband, Steve, when he is on active service with the British peacekeeping force. The casual cohesion of the community obscures a world of creeds, from agnosticism to zealotry, that Patterson, with a bartender’s worldly eye, reveals in nuances.

Sad stories meander through the crowded background, their significance shifting with each new narrator. The cost of sectarian violence is not counted but made all the more vivid by implication. Hideg, host of a series of New Year parties in the 1970s, repeatedly pours cold water on Rodney’s suggestion that Northern Ireland is “not Cyprus, not the Lebanon”. “Another perfectly bloody year”, says Rodney, whose Cassandra complex grows when his neighbours seem to turn against him. The Eliots park their removal van amid the cars of Hideg’s mourners. His name means “cold” in Hungarian, apparently.

Some bad vernacular habits mar Patterson’s otherwise tightly controlled prose; he indulges in nervous jokes in parentheses, as if he doesn’t believe that he has the reader’s full attention. His Mona Lisa asides, inspired by the obsolete ways of the world, are better - the doctor, for example, who scoffs at the Lancet’s report of a link between lung cancer and cigarettes - but best of all is his contrary knack for familiarizing the foreign territory of the past. The articulation of consciousness is gently astounding sometimes; at one point, he seems to recall and recapture something of Virginia Woolf s To the Lighthouse, in particular the scenes where Mrs Ramsay reads her husband’s thoughts. Glenn Patterson was described in the TLS several years ago as a “relatively minor talent” (April 19, 1996). Would that more modern talents were so minor: like The International and Owen Cafferty’s new play, Scenes from the Big Picture, which tells the story of forty Belfast characters in twenty-four hours, Number 5 is concerned with the fringes but merits the limelight.


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