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Northern Irish Reality In Colin Bateman's Divorcing Jack

Colin Bateman, in his first novel, Divorcing Jack (1994), begins his narration with an introduction written in italics that very much appears to be connected with the narrative style of the 1940´s film noir movies, where it is taken as a fact that the main character always introduces the viewer with the storyline of what had happened so far and the narration continues to run in the retrospective (such as Billy Wilder’s famous Sunset Boulevard, or Double Indemnity). Here, the very similar narrative device helps Bateman to make the reader enter quickly and directly into the plot. Hence, from the very first lines we know the main hero is going to be caught by his wife when a party at his place leads somewhat incoherently to kissing a newfound young friend in his study. And this fact is going to change their lives. The character soon appears to be Dan Starkey, a witty columnist of Belfast Evening News, who, after a rather unsuccessful initial meeting with his supposed-to-be future employer, gets drunk, falls in lust with a young student of geology, and finds himself helplessly mired in trouble with his wife and soon after, with the law. Shortly after Patricia (Starkey’s wife) catches him in the arms of another woman and gives him a twenty-four-hour ultimatum to move out, Margaret McBride (the student) is murdered and Starkey, being the last one to have seen her dying, not surprisingly becomes the prime suspect. Cut loose in Belfast – “the cosy gold cost of Northern Ireland where paramilitary organizations hold coffee mornings, with an Armalite in one hand and a packet of Jaffa Cakes in the other” (p.78), Starkey decides he must track down the killer in order to clear his own name. In his job as a newspaper columnist he finds even more trouble. His employer pairs him with an American reporter of Boston Globe, Charles Parker, to interview a political candidate, Mark Brinn, and during the following investigation Starkey uncovers a scandal that could potentially affect and even seriously alter the result of the incoming national election (not forgetting to mention the fact that the reader’s favourite characters start to get killed off). What makes this book different from other literature written by the Irish authors is the fact that the main character, Dan Starkey, is British, defining himself as a Unionist Protestant - “I was brought up with Protestant taste.

Plain and simple.” (p.3), who is “a hard drinker” (p.8) and “wouldn’t work for Republican News because it supports terrorism.” (p.9). However, despite of him being British, he is proud of having lived in Belfast, knowing the city like a palm of his hand and of speaking a good Belfast accent. Starkey, unfortunately for the situation he got into, is not exactly a man of action; he often turns out to be weak and mostly escapes dangerous situations only thanks to having good luck.
However, be honest, it is his weakness and fragility that makes of him such a likable character. And what particularly appears to be useful, in the spoiled situation like this, is definitely a sense of humour; and it seems Starkey has lots of it. The humour, and not to forget a good drink, helps him to react almost-consciously and not to lose his sanity. The reader should be prepared that during his ‘adventure’, Starkey is going to throw loads of offences that would curl one’s hair, but it is just his way the journalist copes with the situation.
For a foreign reader, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is likely to be the Northern Irish setting – a region with the “lowest crime figures in the UK unless you count all the killings” (p.46). Hence, the narrator also servers as a guide to everyday Northern Irish reality and to its “fun and games” (p.57), shall we put it like this. The reader finds Starkey commenting on political situation and on genuinely awful social problems with a witty sense of humour, giving various references and allusions also to the historical background. According to him, and at this very moment also according to the author Colin Bateman, Northern Ireland is a country which “if you’re a Loyalist you’ll call it Ulster, if you’re a Nationalist you call it the North of Ireland or the Six Counties, if you’re the British Government you call it the Province” (p.46). The most obvious connection with the war-torn reality of Northern Ireland seems to be the character of Mark Brinn, a candidate for the future prime minister. Brinn is the head of the Alliance Party, or to say “a compromise party” (p.50), which hopes to bring reconciliation to the country. The party believes in “power sharing, a largely autonomous state, freeport status” (p.88). Parker comments on it, finding this program “British but not British, Irish but not Irish. Independence with a safety harness. A Northern Irish Hong Kong.” (Ibid.). At the beginning of the narration Starkey smartly informs the reader about Brinn’s past, stating that Brinn is, politically and literally, “a salesman” (p. 49).

What annoys Starkey is that in the past when starting his furniture business, Brinn had changed his Catholic-sounding surname O’Brinn to neutral Brinn, just not to offend anyone. Starkey-journalist obviously did not find it particularly amazing, but Brinn tried to defend his decision: “I think it was possibly a way of expressing my resentment at the state of affairs in this country – the fact that just because there was an ‘O’ at the start of my name a certain section of the community automatically believed that I was, in some way, the enemy.” (p.51).
Another clue that contributes to understand Northern Irish reality is closely connected with the omnipresent paramilitary organizations; regardlessly on which side they fought. The IRA, the most obvious to mention, finds its place in the novel when Parker, Starkey and Brinn are discussing another problem of Irish history – the emigration. “The Irish built the America”, reveals Brinn proudly (p.87). While the sad fact remains that most Irish Americans think “it’s romantic to support a civil war” (p.88) thus sending the highest financial contributions to the IRA, which, in fact, makes “armchair terrorists” (Ibid.) of them.
The ‘virtually opposite’ side of the IRA, the UVF, is, ironically and paradoxically, being represented by an ‘outspoken’ female taxi-driver (she had the UVF letters tattooed on her arm), whom Starkey meets two or three times during his dangerous journey. ‘The Belle of Belfast’ does not hold any fancy illusions about Starkey’s newspaper column, revealing to him it was all crap (p.61). She, having a rather tough and at the same moment simple and clear opinion on some subjects, even refuses to drive Starkey to Margaret’s place having herself heard it was “that fuckin’ Fenian hole” (Ibid.).
As far as the author’s narrative style is concerned, Colin Bateman is very easy to follow. Despite the setting in Northern Ireland we do not get much from the Gaelic language, if we ever hoped to; though not surprisingly, since the main character is British. It was only once in the whole story that Starkey corrected Parker’s bad non-Irish pronunciation of the County Tyrone; to be it pronounced “Ter-own” (p.49). From time to time, the novel approximates very closely to film, as had been already mentioned above. It is a strongly ‘action-based’ novel; its ‘clipping’ style makes us think we are watching an action/thriller movie.

The author often closes the chapters before something ‘interesting’, as we understand it, was going to happen; thus creating more suspense and therefore encouraging the reader to continue reading.
The real meaning of the title (and also of the last words Margaret had pronounced a while before she died) turns out to be a clever puzzle. Although mainly concentrating on action, the narrative appears to introduce the reader into the everyday reality of Northern Ireland and is definitely an entertaining read, therefore might be worthwhile for those who are interested in Belfast and, not to forget, still know how to take a joke.

Bateman, Colin. Divorcing Jack. London, HarperCollins Publishers 1995. -

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