Line by Niall Bourke

Clever and original new Irish writing will leave you thinking

Published by Tramp Press

QUEUES are a necessity; more often than not they’re a bore to be endured at the post office or bank or customer service desk, yet sometimes they facilitate anticipation, to get into a gig or a nightclub, or on to a fairground ride.

But surely no one would choose to live their life ‘lining up’, spend day and night protecting their space, waiting for weeks or more for the queue to move again to get to the destination. No one, not even those who willingly wait overnight for concert tickets or the start of the St. Stephen’s Day sales. Surely?

Well, given enough hope in an otherwise hopeless situation, maybe you’d think again. Willard and his mother have been in a queue, the Line, all his life and hers. They don’t even question it any more, it’s just how it is. In front of them is Mr. Hummel, a teacher and spiritual leader, behind a family called The Andersons.

It’s a life of drudgery, their only goal being to survive long enough to reach the end of the line, where something glorious awaits them. They’re not hunters or scavengers, but barterers, of the packages that are delivered monthly or so by an unknown beneficiary. In any case, there’s nothing to hunt or scavenge; on either side of them is veritable wasteland.

It’s forbidden to leave the Line, and those who do always come back, to a terrible fate. They’re looked on as queue skippers, time thieves, and their punishment is brutal and absolute. Still, Willard is tempted. He knows what potentially awaits him and yet the urge to leave, as, it turns out, his father once did, is increasing by the day.

When opportunity arises, he and his girlfriend Nyla are confronted with the decision; to stay or to go. What happens next escalates the story from fable to quest, and then something else entirely, something spectacularly unexpected. Line is not so much genre defying, but genre expanding.

The descriptive language debut author Niall Bourke uses is pivotal in setting the scene, and is executed with considerable skill. The compact lives of the Line, the humdrum existence of its inhabitants, calls for slow and steady world building.

The reader needs to know how the Line works, what it might look like and feel like to live in it, in order to wrap their minds around what comes after Willard and Nyla leave camp, with only enough supplies to carry and a mysterious handbook to their names.

Line would probably fall into the speculative fiction camp, rather than sci-fi. Later elements reminded me of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, which itself is a noted example of “weird fiction”, a sub-genre of speculative fiction.

Weird fiction is exactly what it says on the tin, encompassing elements of supernatural fantasy and horror, and while Line touches briefly on it, doesn’t go full on inaccessible to the casual reader. Rather, it takes you on a journey to the unknown but strangely familiar, broadening the story exponentially from the confines of the camp to the reality of the rest of the world, taking in (alternate) history, socio-economic theory and politics along the way.

Bourke is also a poet, accounting for the lyrical qualities of the prose that shine through, particularly in the earlier part of the novel. As the story grows, so does its structure; it begins with short chapters of two or three pages that are quite self-contained, increasing to longer passages as the tale unfolds.

To say any more would be to spoil the experience, and Line is nothing if not a curious and experimental, relatively short read for someone looking for something a little bit out of the ordinary. Published by Tramp Press, it’s new Irish writing that subverts what has been heralded recently, the likes of Normal People and Exciting Times, for instance, that have set Irish writing out as sparse and raw, real and unfailingly honest.

Line is different, and even because of that is refreshing. It’s fiction of the unfurling kind, with a fireside story-telling quality. It’s unflinching in its descriptions of Line life and beyond, and doesn’t hold back from ferocious human emotion. Imaginative, gripping and compelling, you’ll never again complain about being stuck in a queue when you’ve finished reading.

  • First Published in The Tuam Herald on 28 04 21

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