The Last Romantic Out of Belfast

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My grandfather used to ask me why it was that I liked to travel so much. “I went abroad once”, he’d say, “I didn’t like it much”. It wasn’t really surprising – his ‘world tour’ had been entirely funded by the government but seeing South Africa and India en route to the jungles of Burma to fight the Japanese in World War II wasn’t likely to have been the type of experience that he’d want to repeat. Throughout my childhood Grandad was prone to going on and on about the war and my sister and I developed the ability to fake a look of mild interest that would avoid offending him but not encourage him to continue. Like many of his generation, it had been an awful time but was undoubtedly the most interesting thing that happened during his life.

Writer Sam Keery is 80 years old and has just published his first novel – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say his publishers seem to have just reissued his first novel which was first published in 1984. Personally I wonder why they thought it worth a second shot. The Last Romantic Out of Belfast is set – no surprise – in Belfast and follows young Joe McCabe through his childhood and adolescence through a period that straddles the Second World War. In creating Joe, the reader can’t help but assume that the boy is based on Keery’s own childhood memories. He’s an ordinary Joe – a bit shy perhaps, academically gifted but a bit lazy and he comes from a family that’s not too poor or subject to any particularly terrible hardships.

“…the local flavour just doesn’t come through on the page and the wartime impact was relatively low.”

When I heard about the book I thought it sounded like a winner – take Belfast, a city of wit and controversy, set it during the war, a time when I had no idea how it would have impacted our most westerly UK capital, and at a time before the ‘Troubles’ that followed. We would surely find insights into sectarian issues, wartime suffering, colourful language, plenty of humour, lots of lively memories and reminiscences – at least that’s what I thought and hoped for. I wasn’t expecting a tale of horrific childhood a la Angela’s Ashes but I assumed times would have been hard and undoubtedly interesting. Sadly the reality was very different and I was horribly disappointed by this novel.

The Last Romantic Out of Belfast is not an easy read. Due to the use of very small paragraph indents, I felt like each page was a massive block of unbroken text. Keery’s over-flowery and complex sentences with multiple sub-clauses and clumsy construction jarred with my sense that a time of childhood simplicity should be reflected in the way the language was used. I found some sentences almost physically painful to read but the biggest problem was that there’s just no real plot to this book. It’s a life and if I wrote about my childhood I know that wouldn’t have much of a plot either – mind you though, I wouldn’t try to get my childhood published and charge £16.99 to unwary readers. Often I found myself at the end of a page or even a chapter and I’d already long forgotten what had happened in the text I’d just read – it rambled, it dithered and it lacked any sense of direction other than the passage of time and Joe’s consequent increase in age. I’m sorry to say it but I was bored by this book and that’s something that I feel really bad about but I cannot dress it up in any more polite fashion.

Anyone who knows people from Belfast will probably join me in thinking them some of the funniest and sharpest users of the English language but that doesn’t come through in this book because there’s so little dialogue. The book could have been set pretty much anywhere and at any time because the local flavour just doesn’t come through on the page and the wartime impact was relatively low. Yes the boys played at re-enacting the attack on Pearl Harbour and they ran off to find safety in the air raid shelters, but I didn’t get a sense of wartime hardship in these pages. Family and community are always key themes in any childhood memoir or novel but by the time I was half-way through this one I felt I know almost nothing of any substance about the people in Joe’s life.

I wanted to like this – honest I did. I even requested the book because I thought my friend in Belfast would love it and I could pass it to her when I’d finished. But sadly – and I hope that Mr Keery won’t take my comments too much to heart – I was all too often reminded of my Grandad banging on about the war. Sorry but this was a complete miss for me.

Thanks to Book Guild for providing a free review copy.


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Last Romantic Out of Belfast, The
by Sam Keery

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Written by koshkha
koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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