Nadine Dorries' debut novel, The Four Streets.
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Begorrah! Nadine Dorries’ The Four Streets is a bad novel, riddled with Shamrockese

After her remarkable flights from fact in her statements on abortion, it's disappointing to find that Dorries is just not very good at making things up.

"Whoi am Oi to be reiding the Nadoine Doirries noivel?" I asked me mammy when the commission came through. "Is is because Oi have disploised the Hoily Foither in some woi?" "No darling, don't be silly, it's because you're a journalist," said my mother. "And stop talking like that, you're no more a Plain Person of Ireland than the MP for Mid Bedfordshire is." Fortunately, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire has at least a dim and remote grasp of her limitations, because she doesn't try to write the whole of The Four Streets – her debut novel, and may it long remain blessed in its singularity – in the tongue of her poor-but-honest, devout-yet-practical, low-but-proud cast of net-curtain bleaching Irish Catholic housewives and their Guinness drinking docker husbands in 1950s Liverpool.

There are lines of luminous green dialogue, of course. Lines like: "Jaysus, would yer so believe it not?" and, "That'll be grand for the boxty bread." But happily, Dorries generally restricts herself to telling rather than showing what her characters are thinking and doing, so we are spared too much of the shamrockese. For example, when the villainess of the piece, "haughty stuck up Protestant bitch" Alice, first appears, she is smiling secretly to herself over a funeral. This is because she is evil.

Other ways in which we know that Alice is evil include being told that she is evilly plotting to beguile unfortunate widower Jerry, the fact that she doesn't want or like children, and the fact that she procures her own abortifacient from the chemists. Poor Jerry, not only tricked into having sex with a woman he doesn't like, but also forced to listen to "the sound of his would-be babies flushed down a tube". Well, not exactly sex: when he takes Alice roughly over the kitchen table, it is with such fury that "if Alice hadn't deliberately engineered this, his lovemaking would have bordered on rape". Fans of Hansard may here recall Dorries' claims that compulsory abstinence education for girls would prevent sexual violence.

Dorries made her name in parliament trying to make it more difficult for women to decide what to do with their own uteruses, but it's not that she would judge her characters for controlling their fertility. It's just that there's a right way and a wrong way in The Four Streets, and the wrong way is anything involving a chemist and the right way is highly mysterious. The deceased woman whom Alice is trying to replace knew the right way: the lovely Bernadette, Queen of Hearts of the Four Streets, "amazed them all with her ability to control her reproductive organs".

Dorries does not begrudge her heroine that remarkable power of will over womb, and although it is necessary for Bernadette to die in a tragic childbearing accident as she delivers her sole infant in hospital, that doesn't stop the inhabitants of the Four Streets reminiscing unrelentingly about Bernadette's angelic qualities. Nevertheless, the good Catholics do all appear to quietly absorb the reminder that perpetual pregnancy punctuated by squirting a kid onto the kitchen floor every nine months is the healthiest state for the Irish immigrant housewife, as no one in the novel tries their luck with such modern notions afterwards.

There are second chances for Dorries' characters, though. Bernadette gets to become the best dead mum the world has ever seen when she returns as poltermammy, fortuitously materialising whenever it is too late for her interventions to prevent something bad from happening, but just when a sweep of her "untameable" red hair will have maximum pathetic effect. (It really is extraordinary hair. When we first meet her, we watch her "do battle with her hair, which the wind had mischievously taken hold of and, lock by lock, teased out from under her black knitted beret". Less a hairstyle, more a Lovecraftian horror with its own self-directed will, it is perhaps only Bernadette's tragic passing that prevents this auburn terror from gaining full sentience and stalking vengefully through the Four Streets.)

Even Proddie bitch Alice finds absolution of a sort, Valiumed up to the eyeballs thanks to the tender conspiracies of her mother-in-law and GP. "The cuckoo in the nest had been put firmly in her place," says the satisfied narrator, and so we must believe there is hope in sedatives not only for Alice but also for all Protestants, given that she is their only representative in the book. But Dorries is not afraid to discuss the abuses of Catholicism. In fact, any expectations her publisher had of bulk orders from the Vatican must die in the person of Father James.

Like Alice, Father James is a very bad person and we know he is bad because we are told he is bad. Somehow, the families of the Four Streets fail to notice the manifest signs of evil that are narrated to us – but then, when your narrator speaks in a mix of inexplicable imagery (a child watches a strand of hair move around like "an overlarge windscreen wiper", even though we are later told that no one on the Four Streets has a car) and lines that read like clippings from Wikipedia ("maternal death from childbirth was the biggest single killer of young women, particularly those from impoverished backgrounds like their own") perhaps it is understandable that the simple folk of the Four Streets would miss the subtle signs of raging pederasty. On the other hand, since Father James has no character traits beyond raging pederasty, it's hard to explain why it takes his flock so long to get round to offing him in a heartwarming bit of community vigilante castration.

After her remarkable flights from fact in her statements on abortion, it's disappointing to find that Dorries is just not very good at making things up. Things in the novel appear to happen purely because they seem like a good idea at the time to the author. Characters potter in and then out again as soon as their service to the plot is done. The kitchen table that was the site of savage congress is revealed later to be made of Formica, which seems a material so unequal to the pounding described that one can only suspect transubstantiation. And when Dorries tries to sound a hopeful note of life at its end, she has apparently forgotten that the life in question is a foetus resulting from rape and growing inside a fourteen-year-old girl. In the face of such awfulness, I put on my best Oirish burr and say: Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, feck this shite.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism