Todd McEwen, ‘Across the Great Divide’, review of This is the Country, in The Guardian (25 June 2005)

[Sub0heading: ‘Todd McEwen suggests that less could be more in William Wall’s This Is the Country’; available in The Guardian - online.]

It is the story of someone desperately but resolutely straightening himself out, and how ragged and forever incomplete a thing that may be. By focusing on something real for the first time in his life (the workings of engines), he becomes real. The hero (who has a name, by the way, but I can’t reveal it) never loses touch with people he wronged, and who hurt him. Wall paints a permanent, shabby wound to his country in the drug scene: “See kids on the edge of mourning crowds talking like big men about how this poor bastard OD’d or fell out of a window or got Aids or bad gear or set fire to himself, like this was a hero’s death. Like he died for Ireland. Wondering when they'll be old enough to do the same.”

Wall has an admirable power of poignant description. In their druggy days, the narrator and his friend flee the police through a kaleidoscope of different estates: “By the time we stopped, it was like we changed languages. Every garden had this weeping tree with kids in Benetton playing on the grass. The cars were all clean. Women walked big dogs. They wore sunglasses and smelled like fields. We had no name for this place we found ourselves in, but we wanted it bad.” There are trenchant observations, worthy of Swift, on Irish society: what new money has meant, the police, the judiciary, the media, the “property ladder”. Through it all runs a genuine sadness about families. Time and again the hero finds himself looking in windows at settled people, cynically finding their lives cartoonish, but also wishing he were inside.

Wall’s touch with characterisation is light and deft: many illustrate themselves plainly with just a few lines of dialogue. There are some pretty echoes of the fondness Holden Caulfield felt for his sister Phoebe, and his dead brother Allie, in the hero’s relationship with his daughter, and his mourning of a youthful friend who dies of tetanus (when it seemed drugs would do for him).

This Is the Country becomes a more and more resonant title as the book progresses: in the end Wall gives us a cleverly wrapped précis of modern Ireland, the problems inherent to its new-found wealth and leisure (and what is happening to those who can't participate in that), old class and religious divisions. The title begins as a kind of mantra, something the city chancer fleeing into the “bogs” keeps telling himself as he adjusts to a different, frightening, self-reliant way of life, and ends up meaning “this is the state of my nation”. He sleeps rough in the barn of a moribund farm (“I didn't know then that farms can die of grief”), and begins, almost obsessively, to repair the engine of an abandoned tractor. The protestant farmer, who has also lost his wife, detects his presence and, instead of throwing him out, “adopts” him, and the two become firm, satirically bantering friends, the farm revitalised.

In the end, Wall’s hero finds himself fog-bound, adrift in the sea, then, when the mist lifts, afraid of it. He is in a vast school of jellyfish, for whom he feels quite a bit of empathy: “They must be eating something; easy enough for the guys on the edge, but in the middle it was hard times. They didn't look like they could just decide to go shopping somewhere else. If they had brains they were maybe thinking things out, deciding this is the way it is, they better get used to it, it’s nothing special” - much as he felt about the people he grew up with in the grim housing estates in the city. Not to belabour the point, it’s time that Wall lost his own fear of the “sea”, fixed up his boat and really pushed it out. He doesn’t need the rusty armature of such a plot any more.

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