BOOK REVIEW: Louise Kennedy’s THE END OF THE WORLD IS A CUL DE SAC

by | Feb 12, 2024 | Book Reviews, The Attic

Portrait of hunting dogs chasing a rabbit.

The End of the World is a Cul De Sac
by Louise Kennedy
Riverhead Books, 2023
304 pages
Reviewed by Lisa Seidenberg

Writing in a garden shed, Louise Kennedy put her own twist on Virginia Woolf’s dictum about a woman having a room of one’s own, except Kennedy’s was one that previously had been used to store digging tools, bicycles and discarded paint cans. Reading her recent collection of short stories, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac: Stories – one can feel the palpable presence of that dusty shed and the dreary dampness of the Irish weather permeating her lungs as she breathes it in.

To  a reader who is not a “Nordie” – native of Northern Ireland – and I include myself in the non-category – the language of her writing can be a bit obscure in places, feeling as dense as walking through the bogs without your Wellingtons, as one character does. It’s slow going at times. Not that she writes in Gaelic, or uses an inordinate amount of local slang, but it’s written in a kind of conversational patter that is hard to decipher for one used to American idioms or patterns of speaking. “You calling me flash?” asks a date who arrives in a silver Mercedes. Or a mother’s coy reference to her “Irish twins” – babies born in the same year.

The period she writes about is primarily the 1970s, the time of The Troubles, a period Kennedy is familiar with, having grown up outside of Belfast during that time. This is the era of Bloody Sunday – the infamous event in 1972, when a small group of demonstrators in Derry (officially called Londonderry) was fired upon by British soldiers, which left 13 people dead and 14 wounded. It was a watershed moment in the clashes between Irish and Protestant supporters who were backed by the British occupying forces. Popular support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) swelled after that, marked by decades of hostility and brutal acts of violence that pitted neighboring families against each other.

Her important characters are mostly young women on the cusp – but of what? They are not especially introspective, but they often possess a richly drawn interior life so that we get to know them even in the brief span of a short story. They are young women with limited choices who make the best of it, not complaining or even unhappy – simply reacting to the conundrums of a proscribed life.

One of the strongest stories, “In Silhouette,” portrays a sister as she recalls witnessing her brother’s death, killed by a bomb blast, as friends (presumably Catholic) gather for a routine night out in the local pub:

 

The hot pants look trampy with the platforms, so you change into your yellow parallels. You pack your clutch bag with fags, a pat of powder, a tin of vaseline. It’s floppy so you wad it with tissues to fill it out. The bag came free with a bottle of Charlie perfume you bought in the chemists shop you’re not allowed to go into because Mr. Crawford is a Loyalist. A last look in the mirror. The broderie anglaise top doesn’t quite reach the waistband of your trousers.

 

I didn’t get it on the first reading. But – of course! The specific mention of “broderie anglaise,” a type of 19th century embroidery with cut holes or eyelets, is as English-y as it gets. Not to be-labor this detail, but why drop it into the story if it wasn’t a pointed detail – and where it points is clear. She recalls every item she was wearing that day, the contents of her clutch bag and more importantly, who sat where in the local pub when the “stranger” appeared in the doorway. This is all brought back when she undergoes interrogations with police, and replayed in her head on endless rewind.

Story after story in this collection is about women who are bound irrevocably and emotionally to the land and culture of their birth. They are not rebellious, at least not overtly – or looking to leave. And where would they go anyway? They are women coming to grips with their lot in life, disappointments with husbands or fathers or boyfriends – or life itself – which never quite lives up to their expectations. The survivalist boyfriend who shoots and kills a hare in the backyard, the husband in denial about a child’s disability, the curious new neighbors, a psychologist-herbalist husband who sedates his wife (with doses of belladonna) before packing her off to an institution.

Take a class on 20th century Irish writers or poets – it will likely feature a hearty Irish stew of James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Colm Toibin. The predictable list is a notably long one for a small country – but there are many contemporary Irish women of letters, who are often relegated to the second tier. Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, come to mind.

Few of them, however, map the territory that Louise Kennedy does. Her full-length novel, Trespasses, also published in 2023, is the story of the inauspicious romance between a young Catholic woman, Cushla Lavery, and an English barrister who is older, married and involved in the violent politics of the day, and similarly to The End of the World is Cul de Sac, the setting is a small town in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s.

Reading Louise Kennedy, brings to mind the writing of the poet Eavan Boland, who sadly died too soon in 2020, and whose lyrical work cast a luminous beam of light on the realm of women and Irish identity. One imagines Kennedy would be familiar with her work, as they tread down similar literary pathways.

From her poem, “Mother Ireland”:

 

Night and day
___words fell on me.
______________Seeds. Raindrops.
Chips of frost.
__From one of them
____I learned my name.
_______________I rose up. I remembered it.
Now I could tell my own story.
__It was different
____from the story told about me.

– Eavan Boland

 

About The Author

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Lisa Seidenberg is a  filmmaker and writer who brings a cinematic sensibility to her written work. Her poems and literary criticism are published in NewVerseNews, Atticus Review, One Art: A Journal of Poetry and VENU Magazine. Her documentaries and poetry films are screened widely in Europe, as well as the US, inc. the Sundance Film Festival and Berlin, and London International Film Festivals; Muenster, Athens and O’Bheal Poetry Film Festivals. Her book, “Dark Pools” was featured at the NY Art Book Festival and Rendez-Vous Image (RDVI) in Strasbourg, France. Book info: https://www.printedmatter.org/catalog/53988/