Modern Gods

Modern Gods Available: 27 June 2017

From an award-winning author who writes with “a wonderfully original and limber voice” (The New York Times)—a powerful, thought-provoking novel about two sisters who must reclaim themselves after their lives are dramatically upended

“Encompasses deep – the deepest, thorniest – questions of faith and redemption, fate and forgiveness.” – Michael Chabon

Alison Donnelly has suffered for love.  Still stuck in the small Northern Irish town where she was born, working for her father’s real estate agency, she hopes to pick up the pieces and get her life back together.  Her sister Liz, a fiercely independent college professor who lives in New York City, is about to return to Ulster for Alison’s second wedding, before heading to an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea to make a TV show about the world’s newest religion.

Both sisters’ lives are about to be shaken apart.  Alison wakes up the day after her wedding to find that her new husband has a past neither of them can escape.  In a rainforest on the other side of the planet, Liz finds herself becoming increasingly entangled in the eerie, charged world of Belef, the subject of her show, a charismatic middle-aged woman who is the leader of a cargo cult.

As Modern Gods ingeniously interweaves the stories of Liz and Alison, it becomes clear that both sisters must learn how to negotiate with the past, with the sins of fanaticism, and decide just what the living owe to the dead.  Laird’s brave, innovative novel charts the intimacies and disappointments of a family trying to hold itself together, and the repercussions of history and faith.

This is not a book to read for entertainment, it’s one to read for education, for philosophical reasons.

If you have an emotional attachment to Ireland and its history, it’s a bloody painful one to get through.

The novel opens violent and bloody so the first impression you’re given is one of monsters especially with the Halloween theme placed over the scene and no explanation given for the massacre. Interspersed throughout the story you’ll suddenly come across a small story snuck in about one of the people who was part of that massacre then the main story picks up again so faces are put with the bodies from that horrific opening. Eventually an explanation is given late in the book as to who was involved and why.

One of the best lines is when a supporting character is trying to comfort another and tells her “I wish someone would explain Northern Ireland to me,” and the main character replied, “Me too.” That pretty much sums up the history and turbulence in which this story is set; no one, not even those who live there, can ever fully wrap their hearts and minds around it.

At its heart this is a story about the messiness of families, relationships and trying to navigate a world where boundaries don’t exist or move as fluid as water. Thrown in early, the author highlights the generational issue when it comes to dating that it seems increasingly newer generations of people are deciding at an exponential level that the ‘norms’ of dating mean to have sex with whoever is available regardless of gender and monogamous relationships exist only in history books; that could just be a thing in the States and not the rest of the world. The rules of motherhood were one of his better introspections on human behavior because any parent being honest with themselves would agree they made perfect sense.

At times he used the “f-word” so often I wondered if he had quota or if he was trying to create a drinking game – take a shot every time it appears. Since a good chunk of the story is set in Ireland he did at least use phrase and terminology appropriate for the country and people which is appreciated though I’m sure if Americans read this they’ll need to keep google open to understand what he means or we’ll be having reviewers claim Laird’s homophobic for using the word “fag” because they didn’t know that means “cigarette” in the UK. You shake your head but I’ve seen it.
The reader needs some kind of familiarity with what has happened, and on a smaller level continues to happen, in the North of Ireland to truly appreciate the story. Even small things will lose their humor if they don’t understand passages like when he describes his characters leaving County Derry and the context as to why the sign showing they’re leaving the area has been defaced. Or how another sign sums up so accurately the convoluted politics of the area and times: “In Texas murder gets you the electric chair. In Magherafelt you get chair of the council.”

For me the hardest part to read was when one of the characters tries to justify what he did by saying, “They were killing us for being Protestant, just for existing. We had to strike back.” I’m an Irish Catholic who lost family at the hands of Protestants simply because my family is Catholic. Our whole country was being run for hundreds of years by people who wanted to kill us, exterminate us, just for being Catholic; it was a genocide that England has never been punished for. Laws were created and enforced making everything about us illegal even into the late 1900s; so we began to fight back. It’s always been hard that for years, even now, they justified what they did and called us terrorists for fighting for our right to exist. All they had to do was let us live and treat us as equals and none of this would have happened.

As an Irish Catholic it was interesting reading the dynamics in an Irish Protestant family because if you didn’t know their religious leanings they very well could have been from the other side. Their struggles, their faith, their chaos and confusion with the politics of the area as well as how they feel regarding their own who use violence is exactly the same as us. When one of the characters is being interviewed for his part in killing innocent people just because they were Catholic he sounds so justified, even thrilled, I felt my soul break from the pain then fill with rage; it may be a fictional story but these kind of people and these events really happen and that’s where the emotional attachment hits thanks to Laird’s descriptive writing. It would have been easy to fall into old genetic patterns and just hold onto that hatred if Laird hadn’t shown that just as with Catholics there were Protestants who were truly good people who wanted nothing to do with the violence and maybe we needed to remember we can’t continue to judge and punish them for their religious beliefs if we want the same.

I only had two issues overall with the book. One was with the Part 2 of the story where one of the characters goes off to New Ulster to research a cult like group where Christians are painted as invaders destroying indigenous cultures (which they have) and are willing to cause death to spread their faith (something I’m not even going to touch). I didn’t really get why the author included this storyline as it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the bulk of the book unless it was just because the place she went to was called “New Ulster” like it was some kind of tie in to the Ulster in Ireland. Apparently the author just made that place up as I can’t find anywhere in Papua New Guinea called “New Ulster”. I guess you could stretch and say it was like a mirror to the Catholic-Protestant multi-centuries war in Ireland as you have an invading Christian faith bent on wiping out the existing people but whatever it still felt like it was 2 separate books meshed together and imperfectly at that.

The other issue I had was the bias towards Protestants being the innocent victims who were wrongly being murdered by Catholics. Although Laird did paint nearly all but one of his Protestant characters as having some humanity and not being pro-murder towards Catholics there was still never anyone pointing out WHY the violence and issues even existed; it’s not like Catholics just woke up one day and decided “Hey we’re bored let’s set off some bombs or shoot up people!” It’s a verifiable truth the history is a convoluted mess but you can’t explain anything or tell a story properly without showing both sides.

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