“Our town was slap-bang in the middle of the country, miles from anywhere, and built inside a hole made out of a bog, weeds, mulch, and the soggiest soil you might ever see. If that wasn’t bad enough, we were surrounded by a dirty black drain that spent its time fooling everyone into thinking it was a river. There were two sides to our town. The rich side on the hill beyond the railway tracks and the side we lived on. The ghetto, ma called it.”
The narrator of Alan McMonagle’s Ithaca is 11-year-old Jason Lowry. We’re in interior Ireland. Times are hard. And Jason has finally decided it’s time to look for his da. Walking down the back lane of the ghetto, we’re quickly introduced to a host of characters. Harry Brewster. Fergel Flood. Patrick Fox. Lily Brennan. And two bullies Jason calls “Brains and No Brains McManus.” Everybody seems to know everybody else’s business.
Jason is heading to The Swamp. “Drifts of steam floated above the surface scum. Nettles bunched around the cracked edges. Giant dock-leaves spread out and fluttered. There were nudges and clammy webs. Flies dizzy with excitement.” Jason runs into “the girl.” She’s a “wisp of a thing in dungarees.”
The girl has an active mind. She imagines places to travel, including Egypt and Rome. She scoffs at Jason’s search for his father.
Ithaca is drenched in Jason’s yearning. He’s got plenty of reason to want to leave, including an alcoholic mother. The ongoing conversations with “the girl” are brisk and lively. Jason is our eyes and ears around town, a narrator who seems to see all. Jason is full of commentary about the denizens of a “dimly lit” pub, a place called McMorrow’s, and Rich Hill (the other side of the tracks).
What works so well in Ithaca is the contrast of keen-eyed, sharp-witted Jason amid such bleak surroundings, both the people and the town. Jason is the “hooded pipsqueak” who sees all, hears all. Jason takes a seat at a bar and orders a drink like any other adult (he’s given a Fanta instead). He is part of the town’s flow.
Jason’s yearning for his ‘da’ is tangible, visceral. Jason self-harms. He cuts himself. He writes the word ‘DA’ with his own blood.
“I’m waiting. You hear me? Waiting for you to come and get me. Then we can go and live out our days together. Wherever you want. Doing whatever you decide. Maybe we can be the wandering kind. Restless explorers in the big world. Sailors aboard your yacht. Following the sun around the world. Mooring at a different port every day.”
You won’t blame Jason for what he wants and how desperately he wants it. He’s growing up in a “hole” surrounded by a “dirty black drain.”
Empathy oozes from every syllable for Jason and his plight. There’s a magic moment when the light bulb goes off for us readers and we realize Ithaca is about mental health, what we do to survive, the power of imagination, and the power of story. And myth.
Witty, engaging, colorful, and lively, Ithaca is a pleasure to read. The setting is depressing. Jason counters the darkness with a mountain of humanity.