Penny Baps by Kevin Doherty – Review
By Richard Mansfield
This is a strong debut novel from an author who locates the narrative in his own backyard, one on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co. Donegal and it is set in modern times. At its core are the relationship between two adult brothers, the rugged beauty of the area in which they live and the lives and mores of the people who populate it.
The brothers, Cahir and Dan, are looking after themselves at home while their early retired parents are away on the trip of a lifetime in South America. These young men are very different in character and in prospects for their lives ahead. Dan is attractive, popular and able. He has deferred going off to university for a year and, although this never seems to be directly stated or implied, one wonders whether his deferment has been motivated by a need to be on hand for his brother while their parents are absent.
Cahir is painted as far more limited in his character, capabilities and achievements, as someone who is regarded by his contemporaries in the community as ‘odd’. He is also overweight and one develops a sympathy for him, in the shadow of Dan’s success. The cause of his difficulties are never really accounted for in the story but seem to be left for the reader to infer. There is a reference at one point to a ‘malfunction deep in the lungs’ but the full implications of the condition are not otherwise specifically outlined.
However Cahir perhaps scores in that he is a committed environmentalist. He collects and recycles rubbish and sets out on a mission to secretively plant some trees, from native species, on some neglected land which he believes belongs to his mother and which he regards as ‘high, thriving and forgotten’. The fact of his doing so proves to be a fulcrum in the balance of his relationship to Dan. Cahir believes, somewhat obscurely perhaps, that, if the small number of trees he plants survive, then ‘his life can be forgiven’. One is left wondering quite what he needs to be forgiven for and we are, it appears, left to draw our own conclusions on that matter.
Besides Cahir and Dan, the main characters in the book are local to Carndonagh, the principal town thereabouts and its immediate environs. They are drawn from a relatively small circle, essentially two families, and their various associations. While Dan may be off to university, another character from the other family has failed there, but her struggle to find new purpose takes a dramatic turn impacting directly upon the brothers. Lacking a vast cast of central and crucial characters, following most developments and their implications in the story is relatively easy. Side stories present an insight into the culture and experience of living in this comparatively remote and marginal area, one where the edge of Europe meets the often stormy Atlantic Ocean.
On the whole the story is subtle and well-paced and builds anticipation for the outcome with much shorter chapters towards its finale. But the reason quite why the book is entitled ‘Penny Baps’ seems rather elusive… the name of a bread product or a girl? It feels to need a more dramatic title for such a strong novel, one that will grab attention and invites picking off the shelf or from the pile. Unless of course, there is some particular significance that this resident on this other side of the Irish Sea cannot comprehend. Occasionally there is certainly some local dialect and vocabulary which only an Inishowan may comprehend.
Inishowen is host to the most northerly point on the island of Ireland, but one might wonder whether the author once kissed the famed ‘Stone’ at its southern-most extremity in Cork. For he has indeed been blessed with the purported ‘gift of eloquence’, one gained from puckering up to that rock in much of the writing here. Almost contradictorily at times though, lyrical phrasing and a beautiful use of language sit cheek by jowl with staccato single word sentences; sequences that yet convey almost all that needs to be said. Some passages feel rather overwrought and obscure at times, as in some poetry, but there is a strong sense of mood conveyed by them.
A small aside, and without wishing to be patronising, the Irish are indeed a characterful people from whose ranks we have received great literature and humour. Within this novel there is a small gem of the latter. For those who remember him, hidden away, is a little sequence at a christening, which would have made for a classic Dave Allen sketch, but, say no more, that is enough of a spoiler!
Whilst there may be some unevenness to this novel and it may be unlikely to bust any blocks, it is one from an articulate and promising writer, one from whom it is to be hoped we shall read more in due course.
‘Penny Baps’ by Kevin Doherty is published by John Murray, £12.99 paperback