Monday, October 26, 2020

Review of Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson (1996, Vintage)

Belfast in the early 1990s. The Troubles are still on-going. Friends Jake Jackson and Chuckie Lurgan don’t care too much for the sectarian divisions and violence. Jake is a lapsed Catholic with a disdain for republicanism and its violence who works as a repo-man. Chuckie is an over-weight, poor Protestant living with his mother. As they reach thirty, change is in the air. Jake’s English girlfriend leaves him and he’s had enough of repossessing property. Chuckie has decided he’s going to make money and he’s discovered a cunning way to get his initial investment. And a cease-fire seems possible. As Chuckie’s empire rapidly grows and he finds love with good-looking American, Jake struggles to move-on, finding himself working as a builder.

I first read Eureka Street when living in Belfast in the late 1990s and much of the story takes place within a mile of where I was working in the area just to the south of the city centre. And in many ways the novel is a kind of love story for the city and its people. It has a wonderful sense of place and is full of pathos and humour as Chuckie and Jake try to navigate being poor, working-class friends from different religions in a city still riven with sectarian tension and violence. Wilson does a fantastic job of developing the two characters as their lives transform over the course of a year and deal with various situations. It’s beautifully written and has a strong emotional resonance, with the story switching from laugh-out loud moments to deep melancholy and tears. It has as much relevance for understanding Northern Ireland now, as it did then. Definitely one of my favourite novels. 

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