Trespasses begins with a groping. Cushla Lavery, the protagonist, is a young Catholic teacher living on the outskirts of Belfast in the mid-1970s. To help out with the family business, a pub frequented by soldiers and Protestants, she works part-time as a barmaid. Within a few pages, one of the squaddies has ‘laid his hand on her hips, just above her arse’. In terms of invasive behaviour this is the thin end of the wedge: in Louise Kennedy’s debut novel, no one is left alone, no business is private and no one goes unscrutinised. It is a book that very delicately captures the everyday workings of oppressive judgement and its inseparable companion, shame. The title of the novel is both a synonym for ‘intrusions’ and a direct quote from the most penitential line of the Lord’s Prayer.
This nasty experience at the bar leads Cushla into a friendship with Michael Agnew. He is posh, Protestant, married and a barrister. Not one of these details proves insignificant in the course of this novel. Identity is everything, from the moment when Michael proposes a date with Cushla, not at a bar or a cinema but at his Irish-language class, held in the dining room of a well-to-do friend’s house and attended by vino-sipping sophisticates. Cushla soon realises that she is their ‘token Taig’. Victor, the most snobbish of the group, singles Cushla out for her background and asks her to translate a series of words:
Fire away, said Cushla.
Propaganda, said Victor, his eyes on Michael.
Bolscaireacht, answered Cushla.|
Michael is more charming and less chauvinistic. He is in the mould of a ‘lefty lawyer’, with a civil-rights-movement past and a record of going after police brutality. Yet he still gets sucked into identity-based ways of thinking and ends up sounding like a creep. When he and Cushla first have sex he comments, ‘So it’s true … Catholic girls are nymphomaniacs.’ When she reads a line of poetry in Irish he asks, ‘do you have any idea how sexy that sounds?’ She concludes, somewhat indisputably, that ‘you have a Fenian fetish’. Conversely, Cushla receives a fair share of opprobrium from those who learn of her affair with a ‘Prod’.
All this despite the fact that most of the characters in Trespasses don’t feel very strongly about their identity at all, living with the kind of surface-level social conditioning that is common in places of sectarian division. Kennedy communicates this very successfully. For example, Gina, Cushla’s alcoholic mother, thinks