Reading means different things to different people, and it can be used for so many different things. We do it to relax, to escape our own lives and slip on the mantle of some other existence, to explore new worlds and new ideas, and to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. One of the most wonderful things I’ve discovered about reading is how much you can learn even from fiction, and it was with the intent to learn more that I added All the Walls of Belfast by Sarah J. Carlson (Turner, 2019) after reading a fellow blogger’s review.
All the Walls of Belfast is a dual-narrative novel, following the arcs of Fiona, an Irish-American teenager who is visiting her long-estranged father and half-brothers in Northern Ireland for the first time since she was a baby, and Danny, a Northern Irish teenager who comes from an abusive family and who is trying to build a better life for himself. Fiona’s trying to connect with the family she no longer remembers, a task made difficult when she learns of her father’s involvement during the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s ethno-nationalist conflict that took place during the mid-to-late 20th century. Officially, the Troubles are over, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still isolated incidents of violence and constant tension. How can she love a father who has done such terrible things, things that still echo years later?
Danny’s family was just as involved in the Troubles, but in different ways and on the opposing side, and the effects are still felt in his family as well, primarily in his father’s constant anger and abuse, and the absence of his mother. Danny’s desperate to build a life for himself that doesn’t involve hurting others, but his father, who uses him as a punching bag, is making this next to impossible. Meeting Fiona and falling for her inspires him even more to really be something, but learning exactly who Fiona is might ruin everything…for everyone.
I had such high hopes for this book. I knew so little about the Troubles (if pressed, I could have told you it was a conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants, and there was a lot of violence involved, and also some songs by U2, but that was the extent of my knowledge- which is strange, especially since a lot of this was taking place when I was in Catholic school. I do remember seeing some footage of the violence on the news and on 20/20- yeah, I was a weird tween who watched 20/20- but I don’t remember the school mentioning this more than offhandedly) and I was really hoping to learn more from this novel.
Unfortunately, All the Walls of Belfast assumes the reader has a fairly in-depth understanding of the Troubles from the outset and doesn’t take the time to explain any of the basics. Terms like IRA and UVF are used without any previous definition, and there’s no glossary in the back to define these terms for readers who aren’t in the know. I spent quite a bit of time googling acronyms and reading articles on the history of the conflict- and taking notes I could refer back to, which I did!- to make this book make sense. The story would have been much stronger if Fiona had been less well-informed and had arrived in country needing explanations; this particular literary device is why there’s so often a new kid in YA, or an adult is in a brand new situation, because that new person will need the rules explained to them, just as the reader does. I very much would have appreciated learning alongside Fiona, but instead I struggled to follow along with some of the more political storylines.
The ending wraps up a little too prettily, and in a way that I feel would be unrealistic, unfortunately, these days. The writing is fine; I found the novel to be easily readable and I enjoyed Ms. Carlson’s vivid descriptions of Belfast, as I did the dynamics between Fiona and her half-brothers. But without a more detailed breakdown of the history of the Troubles, the rest of the novel wound up falling flatter than I had hoped. I didn’t come away from this book feeling like I understood the Troubles much better than I had going in, so I’ll keep searching for a novel that better suits what I’m looking for.