With a mere flick of description, Laird summons vast stretches of politics and history. Here is his brief summation of the economic bubble as experienced in Ballyglass, the town Liz hails from: “A shop selling only mobile phone cases opened. A shop selling designer children’s clothes opened. There was an ice cream ‘shoppe.’ There was a deli selling ‘organic produce.’ The citizens of Ballyglass watched these developments with disbelief, amusement, anger and finally despair. When the economy collapsed, the main feeling was one of vindication; it had always seemed ridiculous, fantastical, and so it had been proved. The town had been poor for all of its 500 years, and by God it would be poor again.”
After Alison’s wedding to Stephen, the novel splits into two new directions: Alison and Stephen begin a vexed honeymoon on Rhodes, and Liz travels to New Ulster, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, where she has agreed to fill in as a last-minute presenter for an episode in a BBC series on religion. The subject is a charismatic female leader called Belef, who has rejected the evangelical teachings of the missionaries who dominate the region in favor of a new religion she has invented, known as the Story. The juxtaposition of Ulster with New Ulster, not to mention a cult leader whose name sounds a lot like “Belief,” raises the specter of a schema, but events in New Ulster are lively enough to distract the reader from these suggestive symmetries. Watching Margo, a neurotic BBC producer, try to package the unpredictable and possibly psychotic Belef, who talks to dead people through the trunks of trees, is highly amusing. Equally so is Belef’s immediate and inexplicable fixation upon Liz. “Belef whispered urgently, ‘Elisabet, I know you are in grief but you are here for purposes.’ It seemed to Liz like the rock beneath her shifted. How could she know? What did she mean?”
The reader, alas, is not equipped to know. Whereas the inner lives of Stephen, Alison, Liz’s parents and the victims of the pub shooting are rendered with deftness and sympathy, Liz remains something of a cipher; her fears, desires and grief — if she has it — remain opaque. This thin characterization becomes manifest in the New Ulster sections of the novel, where we’re confined to Liz’s perception of Belef’s activities and pronouncements. And while Liz’s anthropological asides made for tart commentary on her Ulster relatives, when applied to the indigenous population of Papua New Guinea, they have the effect of making Belef and her beliefs sound ethnographically generic. Liz’s scribbled notes, delivered in long passages of italics, contain sentences like, “Life is moving from space to space, from person to person, from moment to moment; it is a story, a litany of anecdotes and mythologies.” These read like direct authorial musings, and the reader is inclined to feel like Margo, the BBC producer, who remarks, after a fulsome testimonial by one of Belef’s followers, “That’s more than enough.”
Still, the dynamism Laird has conjured in New Ulster — a trill of incipient violence; a mass imbibing of a hallucinogen that leaves the BBC producer prone and vomiting — keeps us reading, and the tragic climax resonates powerfully with the Northern Ireland sections of the novel. Apart from any theory, the events of the story leave a vivid impression of the opportunistic mythmaking, sectarian conflict and pragmatic greed at the heart of these religious systems. As Liz observes while in church during Alison’s wedding: “Everywhere imagery of sacrifice and offering, memorials and altars — but even while disguised as just the opposite, a sanctuary from materialism, the church functioned as a marketplace of cold transactions. For it was here that all the contracts were proposed, signed, enacted. … Portrait of the Christian as a stakeholder, as a shrewd and patient small investor.”
In the end, the Donnelly family members reunite in Ballyglass for a coda that perhaps is destined not to satisfy after the sweep of all that precedes it. Secrets are revealed and misunderstandings clarified with the too-neat rush of a last scene in a Shakespearean comedy. But it is a problem comedy, to be sure, for no amount of family catharsis can subdue the dark roil of violence and trauma that Laird’s tale has summoned, and that still flickers just behind it.