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Ithaca, Alan McMonagle

By Helena McNish, on 4 May 2017

Longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2017

Joseph O’Connor is right about this book: the opening sentence truly is remarkable. First lines are tricky things – they set the tone for the rest of the book, and Alan McMonagle has managed to write a triumph: “I am the cancer-ridden only son of a dangerous driver who has thoughts about turning herself into a man”.

See what I mean?


It sets the tone for the rest of the novel – a rolling, chaotic, and outlandish statement that only gets stranger as it goes on. This is the reader’s first introduction to the narrator of McMonagle’s first novel, Jason Lowry. Initially, the eleven-year-old seems to be a nice enough sort, talking to his neighbours and introducing the reader to the various parts of his town which is in the throes of economic collapse after the financial meltdown in 2008.

While the town is clearly suffering, shown in the boarded-up shops, cancelled civic construction projects, and the flight of affluent citizens, it does appear that (in the main) the town cares about the narrator. He is friendly with each of the adults of the town, they look after, and out for, him throughout the tale, with real concern being shown in the novel’s dark ending.
What the citizens seem to lack is the ability to act. Each of them follows the same routine that they always have done, and while the money leaving town has made that much harder for them, they struggle on. The lethargy of his community provides the perfect backdrop upon which Jason guides the reader through his story. Like any good Greek myth, while others discuss and ponder, a hero acts. And so it is when Jason meets the mysterious girl by the shores of the swamp…

The introduction of the girl to the story serves as a catalyst to Jason’s journey, and most of the episodes revolve around the girl’s presence and encouragement. What start off as petty crimes with no victim eventually become much darker and brutal offences. But as I do not wish to spoil the story (or who the girl could be) for any readers, I must halt there.
Instead, let us look to Jocasta, the other woman in young Jason’s life. And, as the names suggest, the two characters are living out entirely separate stories. Much like a very mild form of the complex of the same name, Jocasta is intent on control – of herself, of her house, and of her men. She, like Jason, acts rather than talks about acting, but as the narrator is inherently focussed on himself, the reader is left to wonder what Jocasta does when left to her own devices.

This brings me to my criticism of the novel. While the main characters do act, they do not seem to act in order to bring about the resolution, rather they have the resolution forced upon them. By the close of the story, while Jason is certainly still the focus of his narration, he is no longer an actor, instead he is a dreamer. The final act passes at a breakneck pace, and the ending comes before the reader is ready for it.

There again, this blends with the strange, flowing style that the author chooses to use, with conversations, thoughts and actions each blending into one another. It is an effective method for this story in particular, as it gives the narrator’s adventures a sense of urgency as his words all but trip over one another as they appear on the page.

The other strength that McMonagle has is the humour with which he deals with his plot. Nothing is shied away from, but the events are consistently filtered through the lens of Jason. While incredibly savvy in some respects (his mother’s relationship to her gentleman callers), he is completely naïve in many others (how to talk to girls). At a number of points, it is Jason’s dry wit on the subject of the former and complete ineptitude on the latter that makes him an enjoyable character to follow.

By mixing these methods with the difficult characters, and setting them against the otherworldly town, McMonagle manages to create a novel where nothing seems quite solid enough to trust. This is a new take on the ‘epic’ genre, where the active heroes are tied to the mundane world they are found in.

This genre suits McMonagle well, as he blends Homer and Joyce together to create a truly modern myth. In the wake of the financial crash, McMonagle’s characters each struggle to keep themselves afloat, which when considered against the imagery of the swamp threatening to engulf the town, is a very real threat. Throughout the entire novel, Jason is constantly searching for something, whether that is his Da, the girl, feeling, Jocasta, it all builds into pressure that the eleven-year-old was not built for. In spite of the range of moral questions that his behaviour begs, the boy, just like the girl and Jocasta, is searching for meaning.

Jonathon Leech

Ithaca is published by Picador Books