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A Map of the Harbor Islands - J G Hayes

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I have a confession to make. Although I own Hayes' two earlier collections of stories This Thing Called Courage and Now Batting for Boston I have left them sitting on the shelf unread since I bought them. Happily, I got hold of A Map of the Harbor Islands a week ago and plunged right into it. Now I will read the others.

First, without wanting to be pious, this is a serious book. I don't mean it's not funny, heartwarming, intriguing (and also sad, affecting and painful) but that it is quite straightforwardly a serious literary effort. It's not entirely successful on that front, but then how many novels are? Second, this book is seriously blubberworthy at times. I came close to putting it down because I didn't think I could take the pain.

This is the story of Petey and Danny, two boys growing up in Irish South Boston. Hayes' talent for place and character puts the reader right in the midst of things from the outset. I have no idea what South Boston is like nor much about its Irish culture, but Hayes' evocation of the that world is rich enough for you to live it with his characters.

The story starts with Petey and Danny as boys and as they grow up contrasts Petey's fey, otherworldly tale-telling outsider character with Danny's more everyday guy's guy persona. It's very much to Hayes' credit that Danny isn't a caricature foil to Petey. Their low key adventures become progressively stranger after Petey has an accident that seems to push him over the border from different to strange - but as we find out, Petey didn't go anywhere he didn't want to go and however hard his life becomes, it seems that it's at least partly a life of his choosing.

It isn't a spoiler to tell you that one of the boys comes out to the other and the story continues as their struggle to come to terms with that fact and their friendship. There are awkward moments for the boys and their friends; there's a painful tragedy unveiled that explains to Danny some of the doubt and tension he has felt around him growing up; there's a marriage that you might think should never have been except that it produces a child who gets to frame the story for us. I found myself almost shouting at Danny as the story developed - I got frustrated and wanted to slap him around the head and knock some sense into him, but Hayes' doesn't hurry things and the story is all the better and more believable for that.

I want to tell you all about this book but it would be better to persuade you to read it. It moved me to tears; it made me laugh; it almost made me pray.

There are one or two moments of narrative weakness where we have to strain - just a little - to follow Hayes, but it's worth it many times over. I don't know if this is Hayes' first novel length work but if it is, it's extraordinary. Reading this will remind you how shallow so much mainstream prize winning, critic pleasing fiction actually is.

It's fun - heartrending, tear jerking fun. Read it! Birdy!

Jakob

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I read Hayes' first story collection, This Thing Called Courage: South Boston Stories, and there was much to like about it. He's definitely a talented guy, and I hope his latest is as good as you say.

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