“ Genre: Fiction / Author: Gerry McCullough / Kindle Edition / 316 Pages / Book is published 2010-11-24 by Taylor Street Publishing Ltd „
I bought this book mainly on the strength of its glowing reviews on Amazon and also because I had enjoyed reading 'Danger Danger' by the same author. At just £1.92 for Kindle, Belfast Girls seemed reasonably priced for what was described by other readers as a gripping, heartfelt, exciting thriller.
The novel follows the stories of three girls growing up in post-ceasefire Belfast. Sheila Doherty, a skinny kid who hates her appearance, makes friends with the feisty, loyal Philomena (Phil) Maguire and the rebellious Mary Branagh. The novel takes us from the girls' childhoods through to their teenage years - experiments with make-up, cigarettes, parties and boys - and into adulthood. Sheila blossoms into a beauty and becomes a successful fashion model, Phil falls under the spell of a drug dealer with dangerous connections and Mary's dark experiences lead her to discover her spiritual side.
Although the girls' lives take very different paths, the bonds between them remain. As the story unfolds, we begin to understand the people and things the girls have in common in their seemingly unconnected worlds. So when a fashion show at the Magnifico Hotel in the newly regenerated Belfast is interrupted by the arrival of three masked men with sub-machine guns, the shocking events are set to impact on the lives of Sheila, Phil and Mary in ways that none of them can imagine. Is their friendship strong enough to save them from the danger, disillusionment and self-doubt that has intruded into their lives? All will be revealed as the story brings together drug dealing, politics, fashion and ex-IRA activities in what should have been a riveting read but, for me, was a rather confusing and longwinded one.
In some respects this novel provided an interesting picture of a modern day Belfast. At the start of the book you get a sense of hope as you see Sheila, Mary, Phil and the other neighbourhood kids collecting for their 12th July bonfire celebrations. It is clear that the date no longer holds the same significance for them as for older generations and that Protestant and Catholics are no longer so conscious of their differences. Yet Gerry McCullough describes a city which is still beset with problems, a city in which the paramilitaries are replaced by drug dealers and gangsters, bringing a sense of disillusionment amongst those who thought the ceasefire and the Good Friday agreement represented a change for the better.
The novel provides a glimpse into Ireland's political history through the character of an elderly fashion designer called Roisin Boyd Cassidy, who Sheila becomes acquainted with. Roisin is the widow of a Republican hero of the 1916 uprising. I felt that the idea of the Republican freedom fighter was romanticised somewhat, but added an interesting dimension to the book. I appreciated that the author was making a contrast between people who fight passionately for causes they believe in and those, like Phil's boyfriend, Davy, caught up in drugs wars for so long that he doesn't seem to understand what he's fighting for anymore or whether it's worth it. Is all violence wrong or is there such a thing as a just cause?
I felt this book had the potential to be exciting but it didn't achieve it for me. The first problem I had was an inability to bond with any of the characters, Sheila in particular. I resented the fact that so many pages were devoted to Sheila when in fact the other two girls were marginally more interesting. Sheila's modelling career bored me rigid - the descriptions of her dresses, hair, shoes and the succession of fawning, annoying suitors she has to (sometimes literally) fight off. Maybe someone with an interest in the world of fashion and the world of celebrity would find it enjoyable, but those things tend to leave me cold. (There is a section on the Miss Northern Ireland contest and its various heats that almost sent me to sleep. It could've been adequately covered in a paragraph or two, but it went on for pages!) Although I know that some ugly ducklings do grow into swans, I found Sheila's transformation from gawky, plain kid to supermodel a bit unconvincing. I also got a bit irritated by the stereotypical Irish father who told her "No daughter of mine is going to display herself in public."
As if Sheila wasn't annoying enough for me to contend with, she had to also have the most annoying boyfriend in literary history, John Branagh, the man who aims for the priesthood but on account of being too 'weak' to commit to celibacy, opts for journalism instead. His bigoted, prudish ways are probably intended to be amusing and maybe even aloof and interesting in a Mr Darcy kind of way, but that was lost on me. I just found him deeply unpleasant. "I don't expect you to be that sort of girl," he says to poor Sheila after she has allowed him to snog her. Sheila would have gone up in my estimation if she had punched him at that point but sadly, no. She continues to hanker after him. The 'will they/won't they get it together?' question is something that runs throughout the book and frankly I didn't care whether they did or didn't (although I kind of hoped they wouldn't.)
Phil didn't impress me much either with her misguided loyalty towards the selfish, Davy. I found that Phil and Davy's relationship mirrored the relationship of two characters in Gerry McCullough's other book, 'Danger Danger', and although I had been quite charmed and convinced by the irresistible lure of a 'bad boy' in that book, I didn't want to read the same thing again in Belfast Girls, especially as Davy seemed much less endearing. I failed to understand why Phil was so attracted to him. He tries to justify his vile trade in drugs on the basis that people have a right to recreational drugs if they want them and at one point he comes out with a particularly lame line about his right to make money from drugs and escape the rat race. "I want to win freedom for you and me, Phil!" he declares. Phil would have earned my respect if she had told him what a total idiot he sounds, but she doesn't. Mary is the only girl whose story I felt remotely moved by and I had a bit more respect for her for trying to sort her life out instead of being a doormat.
I kept waiting for the novel to gather pace, but throughout it was plodding. Even in its more exciting moments I was never actually on the edge of my seat. A few more high tension scenes and a few less references to Sheila's frocks and celebrity parties might just have kept things moving along nicely.
One thing I did enjoy was the scenic descriptions of places in and around Belfast, which really did give me a feel for the area - the scenes in the grounds of Belfast Castle where Phil and Davy go for a romantic drive, views of Belfast Lough in the rays of the setting sun, Sheila and John walking on the banks of the Lagan etc. There was a nice contrast between city and rural scenes, which made it a very visual book to read.
I struggled to finish the book. It took me days just to bring myself to read the last 10 per cent of the novel, which goes to show that in my opinion it didn't really build to an exciting climax towards the end. Fashion aficionados would probably have got a lot more out of it than I did, but I still feel it lacks the twists and turns that make a good thriller, nor was there any intriguing character development to draw me in. I also felt that there were almost too many subsidiary characters in the plot and I found it quite hard to keep track of them all. If the book had gripped me more, I would no doubt have paid closer attention and had a better understanding of who was who. I got totally mixed up by the different names in fashion, the ex-Ira, the people from the media, particularly when people who had been mentioned earlier in the book suddenly popped up again and I found myself thinking, "Who the heck are you?" It felt as if there were just too many names being flung at me!
I like the idea of a book being set in Belfast as I do find Irish history interesting and the novel does have a strong sense of place, but this wasn't enough to turn it into an entertaining read for me. Even at its modest price, I can't really say that it was worth it. 'Danger Danger' was a much better read.