Since coming to Brussels in 2015 –she lives in Ixelles– Deborah O’Donoghue has been busy writing a novel but, just like J.K. Rowling liked to write in Edinburgh’s Nicolson’s Café, so Deborah writes a lot in Belga, on the Place Flagey. ‘I like to get out to write,’ she tells me; ‘It’s stimulating. I often write in the Belga. It has lots of natural light and a really mixed crowd of regulars.’ Born in Plymouth, raised in Hampshire, O’Donoghue studied at the University of Sussex, in Toulouse and in Paris (performing arts) before teaching English for ten years.
The description in her book tells us also that she worked ‘in car body repairs, in the best fish and chip shop in Brighton, and as a gofer in a comedy club.’ And now her novel, Sea of Bones, is out, published by Agenda Press on 1 July, and it’s a humdinger that starts with a terrible event.
Suicide is always a shock for those who knew the victim. Such ghastly events can also trigger waves of guilt. (Could I have done more? Why didn’t s/he speak to me?) And disbelief. O’Donoghue (full disclosure; she is a fellow – and prolific – contributor to Brussels Express) skilfully and plausibly evokes such sentiments, leading her protagonist into an increasingly dark and desperate world. In what is part-psycho drama, part thriller, part noir detective novel, Sea of Bones takes the reader from the incestuous rivalry of politics in London to the enigmatic Moray Firth coast and on to the sleazy cocaine-smudged underbelly of the Manchester club scene.
Juliet MacGillivray is chief of staff to Fiona Goldman, radical feminist leader of the Progressive Alliance. Following a press exposé, Goldman’s career nosedives and, after an electoral disaster for the Alliance, speculation grows that MacGillivray will replace her. Juliet’s thoughts, however, are elsewhere, following the apparent suicide through drowning of her favourite niece, Beth, off the Moray Firth. On trips up to Inverness for the funeral and to empty the summer house on the coast where Beth had been staying, MacGillivray’s guilt (because of unavailability through her intensive politicking in London) and doubts (because Beth’s behaviour was so unlike the young woman that Juliet thought she knew) get the better of her and, aided and abetted by her photographer husband, Declan Byrne, she starts to dig and the story suddenly rockets off… To go further would be to give away a sophisticated plot that takes a number of shocking turns (that at first sight seem unexpected but are cleverly pre-figured in the text) and which ultimately brings the reader back to the ‘Sea of Bones’ in the title (the Moray Firth) where, Juliet discovers, everything began and everything ended in ways she simply could never have imagined.
Sea of Bones is richly atmospheric. O’Donoghue gives a great sense of place. Her characters are closely observed and the whole story simmers and blurs, like the mists and fogs of Manchester and the Firth – and like the mental illness that runs in the MacGillivray family. The novel is larded with wonderful turns of phrase. A girl stabs her toe into the water ‘like a bird prodding a snake.’ Trees whisper between themselves. Nightclub bouncers ‘drizzle’ polite remarks over VIP guests. A politician’s proffered hand is ‘a sinewy, liver-spotted wedge of flesh.’ And syncopated footsteps are like ‘Frank Sinatra keeping his own time.’
And what about Brussels and the Belga in all this? ‘Well, obviously, it’s not set in Brussels,’ says O’Donoghue. ‘There are aspects of the plot that I think apply to most countries; high-level corruption, the symbiotic relationship between the entertainment and the news industries. But it’s also about the basic human instincts; love, loyalty, ambition, perversion…’ And the characters? ‘No one in the novel is based on one person,’ says O’Donoghue, ‘but some locals might recognise aspects of themselves.’ Like many writers, O’Donoghue is a magpie, collecting the more striking aspects of the people she observes. ‘Some of the bar staff at the Belga have fantastic tattoos,’ she says, ‘and I was inspired by them when writing one of my characters.’
As to her protagonist, Juliet MacGillivray starts with doubt and disbelief and ends with certainty and knowledge, leaving the reader to wonder which was the better. If you haven’t yet packed your suitcase for the beach or the pool, be sure to pop this novel in. And if, when you get back, you happen to see a striking, dark-haired lady at the Belga tapping into her computer, that will be Deborah O’Donoghue, hard at work on her second novel.
Paperback published by Legend Press, 1 July 2019