Eleven-year-old Jason spends most of his summer days avoiding his drunk mother and trying to find out who his father is. His curiosity is limited by geography, so he takes his research to the local pub, shops and streets of his small town. A host of characters have plenty to say about the recession, builders, chancers and even his own mother. Jason escapes to the peaceful surroundings of the swamp where, amongst the murky waters and tree stumps, he discusses Greek legends and pictures lands far away with his only friend. They soon find themselves planning real adventures and are determined to make their mark.
Midlands Ireland is featured in many of today's finest novels, with the recession featuring heavily in most. There is something quite woeful in the description of ghost estates, whole villages of unemployed builders and hallways full of unpaid bills. It is hard to see the light through the trees of a forgotten midland town. While Ithaca has a similar setting, it stands apart from the crowd. Jacinta has a drink problem. She also has an issue with mothering. She has no filter, no morals and no hope of changing. Jason just wants to know who his father is. His mother refuses to say, so his search begins on a bar stool;
"It was my first time in the pub, a dark dungeon of a room with a beery smell and no windows.[...] Shirley Halligan was behind the counter pulling drink. Meantime, Barry the bank clerk was sitting at the low table by the wall, in his stripey suit and pink shirt and long shoes, the kind that went on long after feet end, and the wondering head on him because his mobile phone wasn't working."
McMonagle's writing brings a whole village to life with simple yet effective words. The story flows at a steady pace, with Jason at the heart of it. He is a victim of circumstance; finding solace in self-harm and vandalism; always listening and hoping for clues leading to his father. Jacinta is darkly comical, despite her situation. She has a litany of excuses for her dire financial situation and most involve Jason suffering from life-threatening illnesses.
Unusually, the dialogue in McMonagle's debut novel is without inverted commas. This lends to a raw and sharp tone and often feels like the scene is literally playing out in front of you;
"Look who it is, Shirley said, without even turning to me.
The one and only.
Back for more punishment.
You'll get a crick in your neck staring up like that, Shirley.
Don't be smart. It doesn't suit you.
You were in a much better mood the last time I was in.
I'm a woman, kid. My mood changes a million times every second."
Despite the bitterness spewing forth from Jacinta and the silent sadness which gnaws away at Jason, their story hypnotizes and jars, through lighter moments and visceral dark comedy. Mother and son get under your skin from the opening page. They crawl so far into your pores that you can almost feel the itch underneath. A remarkable and enthralling debut. Highly recommended.
*I received an ARC copy of this title, from the publisher, in return for an honest review.
Ithaca is published by Picador and is available in HB and ebook format. You can get your copy at all good bookshops, or order via amazon link below: