In her Author’s Note, Sue Divin suggests her novel is ‘a Romeo and Juliet, a love story across divides’. Readers might well think Iona and Aidan faced more intractable problems in contemporary Londonderry than those which cropped up in fair Verona. The summer of 2016 is charged with a violence whose roots lie a hundred years deep in Dublin’s Easter Rising.
Divin tells her story through a series of parallels. Iona and Aidan share a memorable date of birth: that of the Good Friday Agreement, 10th April 1998. Both are now completing their A-levels and leaving school. After a couple of dramatic chapters narrated by Aidan, the following 41 chapters are told alternately by Aidan and Iona, enabling readers to share in the pair’s different perspectives on events and their discovery of each other, alongside their private emotional journeys within their respective families which, on the surface could not be more different, yet at deeper levels have strong echoes of each other.
Aidan shares a small house in the Catholic Creggan district with his older brother Sean. His sister Saoirse, upon whom both boys depended, is travelling abroad. His mother has died, though she remained unbroken in spirit to the end despite a husband active in the IRA throughout The Troubles, an alcoholic and a brutal domestic abuser who eventually quit the family home. Sean now seems to be following his Da’s footsteps, as the New IRA gathers impetus and recruits. On his mother’s death when he was still only fifteen, Aidan had spiralled into drink and drugs. Against the odds, with the support of a couple of far-sighted teachers, he’d discovered an interest in his school subjects, including Politics, and made it through to A-levels.
Protestant Iona’s voyage through her late teens seems far calmer. But she too has a controlling father; an ex-police officer, veteran of The Troubles, leaving him with PTSD and unresolved prejudices, despite his professed belief in tolerance and community. Now, Iona’s elder brother has recently completed his police training. Younger brother Andy is in a Loyalist band. In this male household, Mother plays a subservient, peace-keeping role. Her hope is that Iona will graduate from Queen’s in Belfast with a good degree and a nice fiancé from the Christian Union.
Not unlike R & J, things kick off within the opening pages with a savage street brawl, leaving Aidan broken and bleeding on the ground, assaulted by Loyalist thugs. By chance, Iona and Andy witness the incident but can do nothing to stop it. Iona picks up Aidan’s fallen phone and, on an impulse, films the attack. Her decision to return the phone to Aidan the next day brings the two together, and their unlikely journey begins.
From their first meeting, Divin traces their relationship with insight and respect for the complex intensity of early adult feelings. Aidan, with his confusions and his honesty, is unlike any male Iona has ever met. It is through their relationship, and what she is learning about herself, that she challenges her family’s assumptions about male dominance – there’s a fine scene in which she asserts her 18 year old’s independence from her father. She is not without conflict; her longing to make love with Aidan has to be balanced against her quiet certainty, stemming from her faith, that she wants to wait for marriage to the one with whom she will share her life. She is so lost in Aidan at times (‘Aidan was clueless to how he melted me’) that she hardly knows the part she plays in releasing Aidan’s search to find ways into a future which, constrained by culture, money and religion, had seemed to offer nothing. At the same time, he finds himself pushing towards a spirituality which transcends his childhood experience of Catholicism (‘all bells and incense’).
In those alternating chapters, Divin skilfully maintains two attractively distinct voices – they have different idioms tempered by different senses of humour. Importantly, Divin also sets her story with an insider’s knowledge of the dynamics of Derry itself. All of which will surely prove absorbing to potential readers for whom much of the novel’s territory will be unfamiliar as well as to those within the island of Ireland.