I’m in two minds about this book. At one level it is a Bildungsroman, and at another it is a picture of a period. Martin Brennan is a teenager in his last year of high school. He attends a Catholic school in Protestant Belfast, where being Catholic is a badge of identity. Martin has two friends, Kavanagh, who is an athlete, and a new boy at the school, Blaise Foley, who rejects everything that the school stands for.
At home his pious mother regularly entertains three friends of her age, oen of them a priest, and Martin helps to serve them, hears their conversations, and is sometimes himself the subject of their conversations.
The book opens with Martin at a silent retreat with his contemporaries from the school, where the expectation is that he and the others will consider a possible vocation to the priesthood. Martin’s conscience is troubled by moral and venial sins of thought word and deed, throughout the retreat, and when he gets back to school, after deciding that the priesthood is not for him, he is severely tempted to mortal sins by his new friend Blaise Foley.
After leaving school he works as a technician in the anatomy school of the university, where his friend Kavanagh is a medical student.
It was a bit difficult to work out the period in which the book is set. One clue was a reference to the blowing up of Nelson’s statue in Dublin in earl;y 1966. It was clearly after that event, but close enough for it still to be a talking point, so as far as I could determine from such clues in the story, it took place in 1966-68. It was a time when I was in the UK as a student, though I was never in Belfast.
One feature of the book is the very detailed descriptions of everyday life — the composition and making of sandwiches for tea, noises and sounds like lift doors clanging. In that it reminded me of A touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood. That book was set somewhere in north-west England, and gave a very vivd picture of the place and period, and the foibles of the people, though with considerably more humour than The Anatomy School. But A Touch of Daniel was published closer to the time, and The Anatomy School was published in 2001, which makes some of the close detail suspect, and one of the anachronisms that stood out for me was when Martin tells someone that he had a job “at the Uni”. I never heard anyone call a university a uni during my time in the UK, and only learnt of it much later, via the internet. It may be that it was a peculiarly Irish term, that started in Belfast before reaching other parts of the UK, but for me it made much of the fine detail throughout the book rather suspect.
On the other hand, there were some things that reminded be very strongly of when I myself was Martin Brennan’s age. I went to a Methodist School, not a Catholic one, and in Johannesburg, not Belfast. But I hung out a lot with two or three friends, as Martin did, and our conversations were not all that dissimilar. I enjoyed reading it, but I think it might have been better if some of the superfluous (and suspect) detail had been dropped — it would have made the characters and their intreractions stand out better.