Here’s a wee blog about a book I recently finished reading that I felt should be shared with the masses. This is a departure from my usual book blogs, which usually feature several books instead of only one, but hey, us renegade bloggers like to live on the edge…
The book is “Music Love Drugs War” by Geraldine Quigley. It’s her debut novel, originally published in 2019 by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin Books.
The story is set in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1981 – a grim year in a grim country that at the time was awash in violence, drugs, a crap economy with high unemployment, and a general air of hopelessness. It follows the lives of a group of rudderless teens who see no future in this crumbling industrial town, and spend much of their spare time getting wasted and hitting nightclubs, where they can while away the hours soaking in the punk and new wave music that dominated that era’s subculture.
In many ways they’re just regular teens with the usual crushes, hormonal urges, heartaches, boredom, and aimlessness. The difference is, the teens in “Music Love Drugs War” live in a literal war zone where riots and terrorism are commonplace, and the police operate more like occupiers than public servants.
The story is told from many points-of-view, so there’s not really a “protagonist” per se. But the heartbeat probably belongs to Liz, a 17-year-old high school student from a working-class family whose intelligence and dreams of a better life don’t hold much currency on her side of the tracks.
The other main characters include Liz’s brother Paddy, her 25-year-old boyfriend Kevin, and a rebellious (and reckless) teen named Christy who’s smoooooth with the lasses. The rest of the book is populated by various friends, acquaintances and family members, including Liz’s well-meaning but overbearing mother and distant but well-meaning father.
The plot revolves around “The Troubles.” That was the name given to the ongoing and often bloody conflict between the predominantly Catholic nationalists/republicans who wanted Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland, and the mostly Protestant unionists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the UK.
Anyone who came up in the 1970s and ‘80s remembers the rioting, bloodshed and occasional terrorist attacks that dominated Northern Ireland at the time. Much of the mayhem was perpetrated by the Irish Republican Army, a loosely organized anti-unionist group. These incidents were accompanied by hunger strikes involving republican prisoners – including Bobby Sands, a member of parliament who in 1981 became the first hunger striker to die of starvation.
Sands’ story serves as the backdrop to much of the novel. His death is followed by rioting, and during one of the riots a friend of Liz & Co. is killed by British soldiers. That’s when the plot takes a hard turn away from the usual coming-of-age tale into a much darker place. A couple of the main characters get radicalized after the friend is killed, and join up with the IRA.
Pinned behind all this are individual stories of love, sex, religion, family, friendship, music, and, yes, drugs and war. There are a lot of moving parts, but they’re all expertly woven together by Quigley, who came to novel writing relatively late in life (her late 40s) after spending much of her career in retail.
“Music Love Drugs War” is an almost perfect novel to me, at least on first reading. The writing is spare, with few wasted words and none of the verbal gymnastics writers sometimes resort to as a way of showing off. The characters are so fully realized that you feel like you know them all on an intimate basis. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, as is the setting. Quigley does a masterful job of placing the reader smack inside the Derry of 1981. You can almost feel the damp air and smell the industrial rot.
The plot unravels with such a deft touch that you find yourself absorbed in it before you even realize it. The book is about 275 pages, and feels short. I honestly could read a few thousand more pages.
I imagine part of that has to do with the fact that “Music Love Drugs War” ticks so many of my cultural boxes – my fascination with the late 70s/early 80s punk movement (I lived through it); my love of seedy bars and nightclubs (I’ve spent many a night in them); my memory of the Northern Ireland conflict as a politically awakening college student (but only as a distant observer); my obsession with the politics of conflict.
Earlier I wrote that “Music Love Drugs War” is an almost perfect novel – at least on first reading. I added that last part because there have been other novels I fell in love with on first reading, only to reread them later and end up disappointed. An example is Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full.” When I first read it a couple of decades ago I decided it was one of my favorite novels of all time. But after reading it again many years later – and finding that I had completely misremembered some key characters and plot points – my opinion of it fell by many degrees.
I don’t think that will happen with “Music Love Drugs War.” For one thing, I’m a much more experienced and discerning reader now than I was then. I’m also a regular writer of fiction now, which has given me a great deal more insight into what makes for a good story and memorable characters.
“Music Love Drugs War” is one of those books that stays with you long after you put it down. Others that have affected me that way in recent years are “The Nix” by Nathan Hill and “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith.
I blog frequently about books, and most of the time I’ll write short observations about five or six at a time. I’ll probably include “Music Love Drugs War” in a future installment.
But I also felt like it deserved special attention, because it’s that good. It reminds me of why I love books so much. Pick up a copy when you get a chance.