The Holy City by Patrick McCabe

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The Holy City by Patrick McCabe

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Funny, dark, savage, and with the usual high-quality sparkling writing, fans of McCabe will love this book. However, it's not one of his best and non-habitues might search in vain for a thread that ties it all together.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 0747598169

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Chris McCool is 67. He likes to think of himself as a bit of a man about town; an elegantly ageing roue, if you like. He's enjoying his retirement with a much younger wife, Vesna, and he surely does enjoy reliving his glory days as a hep cat of the 1960s. Vesna doesn't seem to mind as he dresses her up in A line dresses and panda eyes. Chris lives in a gated community - but we soon discover that it's more halfway house than retreat of the rich. Because Chris is a raving nutter and unreliable narrator. I'm not giving it all away - there's none of this gradual dawning on you nonsense for the reader of The Holy City, Chris McCool is mad, bad and well, as he'd have said himself in his younger days, completely out there.

As Chris expands on his childhood in a small Irish town as the illegitimate son of Protestant quality mother and a drunken Catholic father, we get hints about two unsavoury events that led to his eventual incarceration in a mental hospital. But mostly we get stories of the happening sixties and Chris's louche lifestyle, which hid an inner conflict rooted in sectarianism, racism, and Freudian sexual jealousy.

The Holy City has all the ingredients. There's the historical Irish religious divide, racism, mental health, and the sexual and cultural liberation of the 1960s. There's nasty humour, a completely bonkers unreliable narrator, and as many kinds of unhealthy sexual liaisons as you could shake a stick at. There's nostalgia, spot-on contemporary observation and a suitcase full of cultural references - Peter Stuyvesant, the international passport to smoking pleasure. And there's dazzling, sparkling brilliance in words. If you like short, pithy books with a vicious streak, as I do, then all your boxes are ticked. But ultimately, you have to ask - to what end? And I have to answer you - I haven't the faintest idea. Chris McCool made me laugh. He made me pity him. He got on my nerves, and he made me feel quite revolted at times. But did he really speak to me? No, he did not.

I hate to finish a book without feeling that I've fully understood what it is I was supposed to take from it. It makes me feel unworthy, that I've missed its point because I'm a bit of a thicky. I really expected to love The Holy City and I recognised all the elements, but its core escaped me. I'm still recommending it though, since McCabe is a writer of rare talent and perhaps you will see what I did not.

My thanks to the good people at Bloomsbury for sending the book.

You might also like to look at the anti-Thatcher nastiness of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks or His Illegal Self by Peter Carey. For another unreliable narrator, try Please Don't Leave Me Here by Tania Chandler.

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Buy The Holy City by Patrick McCabe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Holy City by Patrick McCabe at


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