Poguemahone by Patrick McCabe review – unquiet spirits

Folklore, superstition and music fuel this funny and frightening epic verse novel about displaced Irish siblings in 70s London

A major Irish writer of the postwar generation, Patrick McCabe is best known for his early novels The Butcher Boy (1992) and Breakfast on Pluto (1998), both shortlisted for the Booker prize and filmed by Neil Jordan. His career since has shown a willingness to experiment in a wide range of forms and styles, climaxing in this verse novel, Poguemahone, from crowdfunding publisher Unbound.

Broadly, Poguemahone is a story of possession – of hatreds, obsessions and souls – and of what cannot be possessed, such as friends, lovers, children, even a home. Its narrative is mainly spoken by Dan Fogarty, who attends upon his 70-year-old sister, Una, who has dementia and is in a care home in Margate. Through fractured prismatic recollections, we learn that their family was driven from Ireland in the 1950s at the instigation of local priest Monsignor Padna, victim of a humiliating supernatural incident. Padna arrives with a mob one night at the “inbred” Fogartys’ cabin, declaring, “A curse has come upon this land,” and saying the nuns would come for Dan and Una’s mother Dots unless they left.

The family flees to hungry London, where Dots becomes a sex worker in Soho under the wing of Auntie Nano, another exile from their beloved Currabawn. In time, the ruined Dots abandons Dan and Una, who, when grown and homeless, end up in a Kilburn squatters’ commune. There Una meets her “blue-eyed boy”, the poetry-spouting Troy McClory, her love for him the broken heart of the book. This is the 70s London of “Clockwork Orangies kicking Irish tramps to death … and no-warning bombs killing children”.

Dark powers also occupy the commune’s temple of peace and love, perhaps connected with Dan and Una (he speaks at one point of “the old Fogarty magic” mesmerising Troy). Iris, another poet, is driven to leave by a gargoyle-ish entity (one of several evil versions of children, as in the film Don’t Look Now, a reference point for the book). Even a policeman raiding the squat feels himself possessed by a demon from The Exorcist, another of the book’s touchstones. Though Poguemahone’s action takes us from the second world war up to the era of that “steely-eyed óinseach”, Putin, violent death from larger, unseen forces is always a constant.

McCabe’s work has been repeatedly compared to Ulysses. Similarities include the importance of music: Poguemahone’s 600-plus pages deploy white space with a musical as well as a structuring function (there are no chapters). Within the text, music provides cultural markers ranging from traditional Irish songs to those of progressive rock bands popular with members of the Kilburn commune.

As with Ulysses, Poguemahone’s symbolic architecture is complex, but the title provides a signpost, derived from the Irish for “kiss my arse” and also the initial name of Irish band the Pogues (who appear in its pages). This leads us on, through kisses linking love and death, to the ritual greeting of the Devil by his minions – the kissing of his anus, which completes the trajectory from the jokey to the macabre. Bird imagery runs throughout, from Dan’s folkloric power to copy their voices, which he uses to frighten commune members when they’re high, to the stolen children in the myth The Children of Lir, who are turned into swans, and on to the pebbles described as egg-like on Margate beach, but which are as infertile as Una.

McCabe has always written poetry, and poetry is central to Poguemahone: EE Cummings’s Mr Death stalks its pages, Eliot’s The Waste Land is important throughout, and Yeats’s Stolen Child sings out in the chilling kidnap passages when Una takes little Bobbie and Ann, abandoned by their junkie mother in a park. Una’s motives may spring from concern, or an attempt to create a family, but you fear for them, as you fear for the later two children she encounters on an escapade by train, the abuse of women and children being a major theme.

Kilburn is punned into “Killiburn” early in the book, and Killiburn Brae is quoted constantly. This traditional Irish song, with its presence of the devil and attendants, underlines the key supernatural dimension to Poguemahone. Many of the book’s richly painted cast of characters are cursed or haunted, either by the squat’s demons or their own, dying early by their own hands or through abuse. At the centre of it all is the stormy relationship between Dan and Una. She sometimes rages at him as the demonic author of her woes; his feelings towards her range from mocking to protective, via possible incestuous attraction, towards something perhaps spiritually dangerous in the book’s devilishly ambiguous ending.

Poguemahone is described by McCabe as both ballad and psychedelic jig, but modern audiences are habituated to hybrid forms: Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and Alice Jolly’s Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile were all successful verse novels, while lyric-essayist Claudia Rankine’s Citizen won the 2015 Forward prize for poetry, showing how fertile the ground is on the borders of prose and poetry. Though it won’t appeal to all fans of his earliest work, McCabe may be right when he claims that Poguemahone is his best book: it is startlingly original, moving, funny, frightening and beautiful.

• Poguemahone by Patrick McCabe is published by Unbound (£20). Ian Duhig’s latest book is New and Selected Poems (Picador). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Ian Duhig

The GuardianTramp

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