Close to Home: A Novel

Image of Close to Home: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 16, 2023
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

Close to Home is a book about survival and the will of one man to take a step toward a different future.”

Belfast, in Northern Ireland, is a scarred place in the eyes of Sean Maguire, the protagonist of this gritty, debut novel by Michael Magee. Although he graduated university in England with a degree in English, his ability to find work, even menial, is increasingly difficult. Added to that is an incident at a party where he assaults a stranger, bringing him face-to-face with the dark side of himself and a sentence of community service.

Drinking, living on the edge, and post-Troubles Northern Ireland offer few good choices to Sean. The city is still recovering from many years of conflict. Sean’s brother, Anthony is a damaged man with a hard drinking problem and a family, and his Ma works as a maid cleaning houses she can only dream of owning. In her free time, she scrolls through Google images for ideas for her paintings.

Told in a distinctly Irish voice, Michael Magee transports the reader to a broken place in a broken time. The damage done by long conflict doesn’t stop when the conflict ends. It can be seen in the faces of battle-weary men and women, unemployment, and the sharp turn to drinking and drugging when the choices for bettering oneself are few. Sean’s sometimes girlfriend Mairéad, has her own plan to escape the city. She sleeps with him then leaves her bag with a Moleskine journal with “lines she had written and gathered into poems. I read one after another until the sun glared through the window, then I fell asleep.”

The harshness of the crumbling setting with its challenge of affordable rent and food, pastimes of drinking and snorting coke contrast with Sean’s softer moments, his kindness toward Mairéad and his perspective of his mother, “She had her feet up on the coffee table, and her pyjama bottoms were tucked into her socks. Her socks were pink with pink pompoms at the front. They looked like something a wee girl would wear, and sometimes, when I looked at my ma, that’s what I saw.”

Although this novel is, at times, short on plot, this mirrors the jumpy life Sean has fallen into with no real home or viable job. The characters are fully developed, and their self-defeating behavior seems both realistic and heartbreaking. Sean Maguire feels as real as a man shoveling gravel at a work site. In spite of his literary aspirations and his clear intelligence, he is a victim of the aftertimes of the Troubles.

All of the characters carry burden and cannot shake it though Mairéad’s solution is to move to Berlin. The poverty that shaped Sean, Anthony, and their mother hangs over them. Their only escape seems to be found in a bottle or snort or somehow gaming a system that is rigged against them by stealing from the till at the pub or attaching a magnet to the electric meter. Sean finishes pints left behind at the bar. Living in survival mode involves pouring doubles for his mates and charging for a single, thus losing his job or squatting in an abandoned flat until he is forced out.

What is it like to be a young man who cannot escape the history of a place? Although much of what Sean does appears self-defeating, he is wholly human, struggling with age-old questions about what it means to be a man in a damaged city, a damaged time, and with a damaged family. Sean’s life has been impacted by historical trauma. It is easy to root for him to overcome the past, reach toward something better, and use his clear intelligence to redefine his own future. With a crisp and compelling narrative, Michael Magee has created a chronicle of the ways in which generational trauma and conflict can shape a life. Sean Maguire is a man on the edge. Close to Home is a book about survival and the will of one man to take a step toward a different future.