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Past times and places

05 August 2016

Caroline Bowder on a story set long ago

As Strangers Here
Janet McNeill
Turnpike Books £12
Church Times Bookshop £10.80


IN As Strangers Here, a trenchant short novel published in 1960 and now reissued, Janet Mc­Neill paints an unsparing picture of post-war Belfast, seen through the eyes of a Protestant minister, Edward Ballater. His is a dysfunc­tional family, overshadowed by his wife Flo’s depressing illness — caused, Edward knows, by his fail­ure as a husband, and the pressures of church life. Their son Colin’s mar­riage to Clare is also strained, and the daughter, Joanna, is a clumsy adolescent verging on wo­­manhood — all their inadequacies exacerbated by being closely ob­­served by the flock. Even the family friend Marion is awkward and scruffy, though oddly she is the “love interest” here.

Janet McNeill’s background gives her writing authenticity. Her father was a Presbyterian minister, and she lived for more than 30 years in Belfast. She depicts failing, sceptical individuals: the minister’s dry godliness, his poverty, and need to keep up appearances; his wife’s stultifying sickness. But ultimately her dramatis personae come up trumps. They have humour, courage, they give birth, they die, they forgive errant partners, they are sexual beings (their desires tersely, often obliquely described), and all are forced by circumstances into greater self-realisation.

Even prosaic Belfast has its beauty and healing, represented by the ever-changing cliff face of Cave Hill, hanging over the city, “a place where unhappy history chained the future to the past”. The book is a wry reminder of how divided life was in the 1950s, and I know Belfast has come a long way since then.

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