This Human Season Paperback – Apr 3 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Set in Belfast during the Troubles, Dean's accomplished second novel (after Becoming Strangers) is an affecting and well-researched depiction of the political and social strife of Northern Ireland in the winter of 1979. John Dunne, a 20-year veteran of the British army, takes a job as a prison guard at Belfast's Maze prison and is assigned to work in the squalid high-security block where the most hardened IRA inmates are engaged in a protest they call the Blanket (the inmates refuse to wear clothes and smear their feces on the cell walls—one enterprising pair "paints" a fireplace). A newly arrived inmate, Sean Moran, imprisoned for his part in the bombing death of a policeman, becomes pivotal in the plan to take the protest to the next level. On the outside, Sean's mother, Kathleen, struggles to raise her remaining children while British soldiers routinely search her house for weapons, and John grows close with his adult illegitimate son. The possibility of violence is ever-present, especially for John, whose job makes him a target on and off the clock. Dean writes strong characters and provides a sympathetic rendering of both sides of the conflict, making for a powerful and memorable novel. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The stench of human excrement greets 22-year-old John Dunn when in late 1979 he reports for his first shift as a guard on the "protest blocks" at Belfast's Maze prison, where the "politicals" are lucky to have a blanket in cells so cold they see their breath. Principal Officer Bolton runs the place by the book and remarks that these prisoners' religion isn't Catholicism, it's suffering: "They're good at being oppressed." One inmate has died on a hunger strike, the situation in the prison has "deteriorated into a deadlock," and rumors fly, through and beyond the Maze, of another major strike looming. Dean, born after the era she depicts, presents Northern Ireland's troubles at their height, groups of small boys routinely spending afternoons "gathering stones for the evening's rioting," and an inmate such as the novel's Sean Moran becoming a force in the protest. She captures the sounds and textures of the time and place with compelling power as she precisely limns two young men and their families striving for freedom. Whitney Scott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Dean tells these two tales well. She avoids cliche, does not show off an overly literary style, preferring to keep more inside, via indirect narration, the perspectives largely limited to Kathleen and John. As the novel progresses, we begin to see more about their partners, their pasts, their relatives, and the reasons they both choose to endure the North rather than flee for less embattled, more leisurely, climes. The alternation, every chapter, of their two stories helps avoid melodrama or predictability. By no means a "Troubles thriller" or a hackneyed hand-wringing liberal plaint, the author--as her acknowledgments show in the appendix, has by interviewing and listening to the real people who lived through this time been able to mix their experiences into fiction that passes for fact, as limited to two frail people recognizably very human.
While I in turn recommend this book, a few very minor points prevented it from earning a full five stars. Twice the names of Cardinal O Fiach and the first name of Eamon[n] are misspelled--this shows a shortsighted editor; the misspelling of the area of Twinbrook, again a miniscule slip, again makes me wish a bit more attention had been paid to such telling details so that they rang as true as possible. Some of the supporting characters, such as Lingard's wife, the priest Father Pearse, Brendan the Sinn Fein publicist, and O'Malley the IRA OC, perhaps based on real folks, do not always share the same depth as the main characters, and therefore leave the reader a bit let down. Finally, there is what seems to be a half-visible subplot about Loyalists having been attacked by the guards and the resulting backlash from those on the outside against John and his colleagues that remains too vaguely developed.
In closing, this book effectively avoids what I thought would be the pat ending, and Dean, nearly to the conclusion, manages to freshen up what has by now decades on become its own often all too predictable genre of British literature. The pace does weary just short of the finish line. Yet, the two leading characters, by their refusal to become either plaster saints or evil figurines, earn the reader's trust and empathy.
Kate Moran is reeling from her oldest son's incarceration, the entire family charged with anxiety as British soldiers rampage through their home searching for weapons. Kate's husband, the senior Sean, continues to hide in the comfort of the bottle, rehashing his old war stories, proud that his son is a soldier for the cause. In contrast to this family caught in the grinding jaws of cycling violence, Englishman John Dunn reports daily to the Maze, plodding through foul-smelling shifts where the other guards survive by fortifying themselves with drink. Stunned by the cavalier brutality and lack of discipline around him, John is carefully watched by his fellow guards for weakness or signs of empathy with the enemy, working long, depressing hours, his home life suffering from lack of attention. An "us or them" mentality prevails, the Maze a black hole of bare subsistence, the incarcerated rebels determined to change their status from criminals to prisoners of war.
The result is pure bedlam, the beliefs of each faction polarizing and demeaning to all, the guards lurking in the same filthy hell as their prisoners: "The moment you've put on that uniform on, you are a target." Finally, For Dunn, hope appears in the person of his son Mark, born of a casual acquaintance years earlier. It is John's connection with this young man that pulls him from the depressing tedium of his job, offering an opportunity to experience the rewards of fatherhood. Against an implacable foe with no end in sight, the Moran's play out their drama, trapped by the circumstances of time and place. Simultaneously, John Dunn lives his personal nightmare as a prison guard, his life threatened, family dynamic in constant flux.
Through the two households, Dean explores the effects of long-term conflict and the damage done to the social fabric of a warring city, each side locked into preordained battle lines. It is the inevitability of violence that defines Belfast in 1979, with no room for negotiation, the citizens traumatized by a harsh existence with few rewards. The contrast between the two sides is striking, immutable, a long struggle cast in black and white. The crux: "You can't change anyone's mind by killing them." The essence of this dilemma is beautifully captured in the characters that people this powerful novel, a human season, "this springtime of hatred." Luan Gaines/2007.
Desperate for public attention for their modest demands, which have been ignored, they are about to engage in a hunger strike, the pivotal event for the action here. Putting a human face on the turmoil, the novel focuses on two families--the Morans, whose teenage son Sean has been sentenced to sixteen years at Long Kesh, and John Dunn, a 39-year-old former British soldier who has just started work as a guard. Dunn has recently connected with the British son he never knew, born out of wedlock, a young man about the same age as Sean Moran. Dean uses parallel scenes (most touchingly, at Christmas) to show how much, on the human level, these two families have in common.
Dean illustrates the conditions and the thinking of the time as the minimal plot unfolds. Kathleen Moran, Sean's mother, becomes involved with the Relatives Action Committee. Their local priest is at odds with some other priests because he supports the hunger strike and protest. Sinn Fein is represented both inside and outside the prison, and one prisoner, who maintains IRA control within the prison, also directs retaliatory murders on guards outside the prison, in their own homes or neighborhoods.
Historical events are paramount, more than just a framework for the novel, and the reader develops a sense of horror about these events. There is little sense of identification with characters, however. The hard-case attitudes of the prisoners allow little room for character development, and the many guards, while having individual quirks, are not well differentiated. The character who comes closest to capturing the reader's interest is Dunn, but the author creates such obvious forboding about his fate and that of the other guards that many readers will be wary of becoming involved. Though the characters here are vehicles through whom information is conveyed, rather than a focus of the novel for their own sakes, Dean creates a powerful picture of seminal events--certain to interest many students of Irish history. n Mary Whipple
Dean doesn't take sides in "The Troubles" - she follows two main characters who never meet: Kathleen, a vibrant, complex Northern Irish mother with a drunken husband and an older son in prison who is on strike and threatening to go on hunger strike; and John, a British soldier who takes a job as a prison guard with no idea what he is getting into. The conditions in the prison are a shock both to the guards and to the prisoners (and even more so to this reader). As you follow the plot and see how people are sucked into this awful violence unable to find a way out, it gives profound insights into human nature and the ethical questions we can face. Knowing that ultimately some modicum of peace will eventually be found gives you hope but there is so much mindless suffering to come before that occurs. I highly recommend this book.