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Exile by Aimée Walsh: Haunted territories, hidden trauma

Debut novel is set between Belfast and Liverpool and is a collage of styles and settings

Exile
Exile
Author: Aimée Walsh
ISBN-13: 978-1399815857
Publisher: John Murray
Guideline Price: £16.99

Aimée Walsh’s first novel, Exile, is set between Belfast and Liverpool. Historically, the two places are separated by the Irish Sea, and not much else. Both are windy, waterside cities whose Edwardian avenues give the impression of being built for generations of people long gone. Both are also places that feel like their last chapter has already been written.

Kevin Barry mapped this haunted territory brilliantly in his fiction of John Lennon’s last days, Beatlebone. Exile too has something of this fated quality in its story of Fiadh, a young Belfast woman who is subject to sexual violence at the moment she makes the transition from school in Belfast to university in Liverpool.

That trauma unsettles the novel’s social and cultural frequencies, and gives it a desperate energy that is foreign to the melancholic nostalgia more commonly associated with giving up one place for another. But if Belfast and Liverpool carry the freight of centuries of leaving, Exile does that most unusual thing, adding to the stories of both places by changing them altogether.

The novel begins with Fiadh in her last school days, stuck between home life and the dingy network of student flats that passes for freedom. The Belfast she inhabits is all cheap drink and diminished ambition, the monotony of the scene punctured by the staccato of its drunken narratives. The effect is somewhere between Nikolai Gogol and Sally Rooney, Lavery’s the dark heart of a bohemian quarter whose arteries wind past the chip shops into the Holylands. There is, perhaps, no set of streets anywhere more ironically named, and Walsh draws Fiadh out of its shadows gently.

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Meantime, Fiadh’s friendship with her schoolmates Danielle and Aisling is intimate in every way but the emotional, the manic attitude to alcohol a register of the desire for distraction, at whatever the cost. The burden falls most heavily on Fiadh after she is assaulted by her childhood friend, Andy. Walsh describes the aftermath of that violence by implication, her account of the physical and psychological damage that results a rebuke to the shame and isolation that Fiadh later suffers from her friends. Exile is like Anna Burns’s Milkman in this respect, in that it makes a style of detachment in rebellion against a culture that conceived of dissociation as a social practice.

This is the story of the North this past half-century and more, and Walsh captures it perfectly in the violence that propels Exile to its unexpected, cinematic ending.

As a first novel, Exile is a collage of different styles and settings. Walsh’s descriptions of the university seminar room have all the awkwardness of any public meeting between self-revelation, social class and introversion. She manages such scenes with a touch that is lightly wry, which is no small achievement for a book of such dreadful weight. The dialogue strings it all together, as do the deadeye descriptions of particular moments, Walsh drawing the boredom of late adolescence in the little things that fence her characters in.

Exile is a novel of such small panoramas, for which Belfast has long been a familiar stage in fiction and film. Liverpool is a place to escape in the Irish imagination, and Walsh manages Fiadh’s disengagement from her new life over the water with sharp and comic skill. There is no refuge in Exile, only the preparation for further departure. The term chain migration has rarely been more appropriate, the weight of Fiadh’s experiences following her in tow until she finds the release to fly them.

The gravity of violence can weigh a novel down into predetermined forms. Exile, instead, is various and ghostly, with the trace of other novels, films and television dramas. This gives it an occasionally uneven tone, and a slight imbalance in pace that gains better rhythm later. The characters of Danielle and Aisling are well, if not sympathetically drawn, and the manipulative Andy exposed for his narcissism, and for his violence. In resistance, Fiadh is the novel’s core and the source of its magnetism.

Exile is a study of how hard it can be to share what we experience, and how lonely we are in silence. Isolation is not a fatal condition, but it deadens that part of the soul Walsh brings to light in the summons of Fiadh’s inner life. That awareness brings no consolation and little justice. But it does change how exile is defined. Walsh makes it mutable, and with it has written a novel that combines judgment with retribution in the most unexpected close to a book that will take its place among the best of contemporary Irish fiction.