Torn Water by John Lynch
John Lynch’s film credits include Sliding Doors (1998), Moll Flanders (1996) and In the Name of the Father (1993) in which he turned in a compelling performance as Paul Hill, one of the wrongly accused Guildford Four. An accomplished actor, Lynch has decided to turn to writing. Torn Water is his underwhelming debut.
Like the Newry-born author, James Lavery is a "border man". This is his coming-of-age tale. James’s father Conn is dead (he "died for Ireland", his aunty Teezy tells him gnomically) and seventeen-year-old James is not coping well with the difficult business of growing up. His mother Ann tries to drink her despair away every night, whilst James has a vigorous fantasy life in which he imagines conversations with his father and, morbidly, different violent deaths befalling him and those around him. For his friends’ entertainment, James regularly acts out these "Deaths". The book is written predominantly in the third person, but we hear James’s voice directly in the form of a brief letter written in the first person that ends each chapter.
Doubtless, Northern Ireland offers a dramatic backdrop to any tale. Lynch, having grown up during the Troubles, probably saw much that was wrenching. This sensibility should inform his bildungsroman, but the "lyricism" claimed by his publisher for Lynch is in short supply. Particularly clumsy is how he handles James's inner life - at no point do we believe he is seventeen. His character acts like, and is treated by those around him, as a child (of fourteen at most).
It is Mr. Shannon, James's English teacher, who invites him to join an amateur dramatics club due to perform One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. His overactive imagination may have marked him out as strange, but performing offers him the potential for escape. Plug, his best friend (a nicely sketched character who, to the annoyance of James, refuses to swear), worries he may be a "poof". James's attraction to Cathleen later in the novel puts paid to that particular concern, but further distances the boys from one another. Growing-up means growing away from many of the things we've grown up with.
"If you have knowledge of language ... you have a shot at the truth," Shannon tells James, encouraging him to act. And Lynch, the actor, has obviously taken the advice of his character to heart: if acting is one half of an attempt to master language, writing could well claim to be the other. It is our task, then, to judge whether Lynch the writer has succeeded. Despite the intimacy of his tale, the sympathy Lynch shows his central character and the odd nicely turned sentence, Torn Water is cliché riddled and trite. When Cathleen first summons up the courage to talk to James all she can say is "Wow"! He cleaves to this most unimaginative of words, convinced it holds some power. It is an exclamation one never feels anywhere near as a reader. This is an artless novel, awkwardly written and graceless in execution.