It’s easy to imagine a conversation about Louise Kennedy’s debut novel, Trespasses, that goes something like this: “What’s it about?” “Well, it’s about a young Catholic woman in Belfast in the 70s, at the height of the Troubles.” “Punishment beatings, bomb scares, all of that?” “Yes, all of that.” “Does her dad die?” “Well, yes, actually. Her dad is dead when the book begins.” “Does she fall in love with a Protestant?” “Well, yes, she does fall in love with a Protestant, as it happens. In this case an attractive married lawyer who’s committed to civil rights for Catholics.” “Do things go tragically wrong for sectarian reasons?” “It is strongly intimated that this is what will happen, yes.”
Plotwise, then, we’re in traditional territory. The year is 1975. Cushla Lavery is 24 and works as a primary teacher in a school on the outskirts of Belfast. She also does the odd shift in the family pub, which is frequented by leering and aggressive British soldiers. Here she meets Michael Agnew: handsome, middle-aged, sophisticated, married. Michael is a Protestant barrister who defends young Catholic men who have been unjustly arrested. He invites Cushla to an “Irish language evening” with his bourgeois-bohemian friends, liberals who toy with pro-Republican politics. Thus commences an affair that Cushla must keep secret from everyone, on pain – literally – of death.
Technique, too, is traditional. The point of view is third person. The prose is in the past tense. This is not a book that is interested in performing radical aesthetic surgery on the realist novel. In fact its mode is what you might call low-realist: the strain of dogged unromantic telling that descends from Ernest Hemingway and the early James Joyce through (in Ireland) writers such as Brian Moore and Colm Tóibín. But after a very few pages have passed, it becomes clear how little any of this stuff – the traditional plot, the conventional telling – is relevant. Trespasses is a novel distinguished by a quality rare in fiction at any time: a sense of utter conviction. It is a story told with such compulsive attention to the textures of its world that every page feels like a moral and intellectual event.
Kennedy, by her own account, came late to fiction writing. Born a few miles outside Belfast, she spent almost three decades working as a chef, before writing the stories that made up her first book, last year’s The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac. Those stories were formally riskier than the novel has turned out to be. The best of them play with the careful disclosure of information to create powerful, bleak accounts of blighted lives.
In her short fiction, Kennedy goes at her subjects obliquely, as the best short story writers often do. But as a novelist, she plays it straight. Trespasses keeps us close to Cushla’s heart throughout (and her name, she tells Michael, derives from the Irish phrase A chuisle mo chroi, “the pulse of my heart”). Through Cushla’sperceptions the details of 1970s Belfast – and of Cushla’s home village, “a garrison town, although it had not felt like one until 1969, when the troops were sent in” – become potently vivid. “On the bypass, a fleet of grey Land Rovers was on the inside lane, bomb-proof maxi skirts skimming the tarmac”: the imagery is Cushla’s, of course, and brilliantly chosen. A street decked out in union jacks, “like Nuremberg”. Cushla arriving for work at the pub, scrubbing the Ash Wednesday ashes from her forehead with a serviette that becomes “blackened, flittered”.
Kennedy is also quietly great at the smaller details. The “soft dunt” of a fridge door closing. Cushla waking with her face in “the hot, scalliony hair” of Michael’s armpit. The prose manages both to surprise and to delight without ever calling undue attention to itself. Of course, prose pyrotechnics would be beside the point. Kennedy’s real interest is in the evocation of character and context, and these she approaches with a fearsome attentiveness to emotional nuance and a powerful sensitivity to gesture and speech that makes each scene feel impressively alive.
In Belfast in 1975, as the half-embittered Michael tells Cushla, “it’s not about what you do” but rather about “what you are”. Kennedy knows, of course, that only bigots and fanatics imagine that “what you do” and “what you are” are separable by fiat. Her novel therefore addresses itself to the ambiguities inherent in the whole concept of “what you are” – that is, to realism’s great traditional subject, here given a shock of new life. Trespasses may be a novel built along conventional lines. But it thrums throughout with the passion and poise of mastery.
• Trespasses by Louise Kennedy is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.