“When I sat down to write the debut novel about Ireland in the 1980s it seemed very instinctive to write about this period through that 14-year-old voice. He’s a boy who’s still a bit of a boy who’s nevertheless confronting all the challenges of modernity,” Maher said.
In the book Jim’s musical interests are Soft Cell and Bronski Beat, but his friends in the council estate are more interested in nationalist politics. In The Fields and in the Ireland of the period, social class often determines how the characters feel about nationalism.
“Nationalism just seems so far away from Jim’s interests,” says Maher.
“Growing up I was fascinated by how complex nationalism is and how multilayered, and how there are class divisions within it. People were nationalistic but totally anti-IRA, or slightly pro the monarchy but singing Republican songs. It was complex.”
When people sing rebel songs in The Fields (at one point they refer to “The Fields of Athenry”) Maher focuses on how rousing and manipulative those songs can be. And not just the songs — also the stories of nationalism.
Another aspect of the book that will take some readers by surprise is the supernatural elements that creep in as it winds toward its moving conclusion. The Fields doesn’t just refer to the nationalist song title; it also refers to the body’s energy fields, those invisible new agey chakras that supposedly regulate our physical and spiritual wellbeing.
“When I went to write the book the place I chose to work on it was in the village of Findhorn in Scotland,” says Maher.
“In the next village there is a new age village where healers from all around the world to think up new ways of being. My wife as a treat sent me to see a Dutch healer. I sat down and I was a tiny bit rude.
“I told him this is not my thing and I don’t believe it. He just popped me up on his massage bed and he gently held onto my ankles. I went into massive spasms.
“Practically seconds after I said I do not believe this I was a fish out of water. That intrigued me and I decided I would put it in the book.”
It’s love, both for his beautiful girlfriend and his big boisterous family, that finally redeems young Jim in The Fields. That’s a lesson that’s as timely now as it ever was.
In his debut novel Maher has crafted a hilarious and heartbreaking coming of age story that rivals the young Roddy Doyle for its descriptive power, narrative force and its sheer joy in the making. It’s the debut of a major new talent and it deserves to find a wide audience.