Great Sex in the Time of War

A new entrant into the literature of conflict attends to gossipy intimacy as much as to beatings and bombings.

Image of hand-holding juxtaposed with archival image from the Troubles
Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty

Not many novels mix juicy romance and wartime violence. War-induced longing is a common fictional occurrence—consider Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, or, to a lesser degree, Ian McEwan’s Atonement—but a vivid, sexy, not-doomed-feeling love story that also takes a war zone as a central subject rather than simply a setting is rarer.

Of course, this rarity is rooted in old, gendered ideas about literary subject matter: Combat and the romantic separation it can cause are (supposedly) serious fodder for male writers, while flirtation and anticipation—the fun parts of coupling up—are not. But in her first novel, Trespasses, the Irish writer Louise Kennedy doesn’t shy away from either fun or femininity. Nor does Kennedy avert her eyes from the Troubles, the era during which her novel is set. By attending to romance and courtship, and by writing about beatings and bombings alongside gossip and domestic detail, Kennedy refuses to shrink or ignore any part of her characters’ lives. In telling a fully realized romance that is also a fully realized story of the Troubles, she demonstrates how artificial it is for fiction to divide love and war.

Early in the novel, Kennedy makes clear to readers that this will not be the sweeping, overtly tragic wartime love story to which we may be accustomed. One of its first big scenes takes place at a dinner party in Belfast, where a young teacher named Cushla arrives to instruct a group of Protestant intellectuals in the Irish language, generally seen as the domain of Catholics like her. Cushla, for her part, learned the language in college; she grew up in a small town near Belfast and works nights at the bar that her family owns. She feels deeply uncomfortable at the “messy, elegant table” and mortified by the very fact of these wealthy Protestants’ “Irish nights.”

Class and sectarian tensions—some ambient, some verging on explicit—ripple through every description and bit of dialogue in the scene. (Cushla can’t tell if one guest, a respected journalist, is “goading her” with his Irish-vocabulary questions or if “some word association of her own was making her see a slur where there wasn’t one.”) So does desire. Cushla is fiercely infatuated with the man who invited her—a prominent civil-rights lawyer named Michael who starts frequenting her family’s pub—even though he’s married and decades older; his invitation to the dinner sparks their first intentional encounter. On the drive home, she knows he’s going to kiss her before he does.

One of the great pleasures of Trespasses is Kennedy’s ability to twine social dynamics together so tightly that they grow impossible to tease apart. Cushla tells Michael she “felt stupid” at Irish night, saying, “Your friends must think I’m pathetic.” She doesn’t add for wanting you, for my lack of sophistication, or for coming to teach Irish, and Kennedy doesn’t indicate which might be most correct. As Cushla and Michael embark on a full-blown affair, it becomes only more difficult for the reader to tell how much of her desire for him stems, at least in part, from the persistent humiliation she feels when she thinks of his power and her lack thereof. Their relationship is not just set against but inextricable from the political conditions that shape Cushla’s life.

Trespasses is written in a style that feels intimate and gossipy. Kennedy has a keen eye for human detail, and is adept at creating characters through the little observations one might pass around like rumors. She demonstrates this ability the moment she introduces the pub’s regulars, including a school janitor whose Carlsberg consumption single-handedly got the pub “an award for having the highest sales in Northern Ireland” and an old man named Jimmy whose loneliness and poverty manifest in “the single egg he brought for his tea bulging from his jacket pocket.” Similarly, the moment Cushla spots Michael, she begins assessing him through his clothes and grooming, guessing at his wealth from his clean nails, starched shirt, and flattened hair, which looks “as if it had been sweating under a hat. Or a [barrister’s] wig.” She’s instantly drawn to the way he carries himself. His class and success are part of her interest in him from the start.

Such social details are as enjoyable to read as they clearly are for Cushla to gather. It’s more fun still when she begins actively seeking facts about Michael, animated by desire that all but radiates off the page. She hears that he’s got a wife, but is a reputed “lady-killer” who can “charm the knickers off you”—a fact that Cushla soon confirms for herself. Michael, meanwhile, is plainly taken with her defiance: He tells her that his attraction to her started on Ash Wednesday, when she had “stalked into the pub with a dirty big cross on her forehead [and] hadn’t looked away when she caught him watching her in the mirror.”

This appreciation quickly turns into respect, which lets Kennedy write their affair without condescending to her relatively innocent, though unabashedly horny, protagonist. Cushla isn’t a virgin, but before Michael, she’d never slept with somebody she loved. Their steamy, frank sex scenes illustrate the joys of being seen both physically and emotionally. Such satisfying sex between a straight man and woman is rare in literary fiction. Kennedy offers readers an honest portrait of pleasure that can be difficult to find outside books explicitly marketed as romance novels.

Even good sex, however, comes with risks. Information and sexuality—and, naturally, information about sexuality—are dangerous currencies in Cushla’s town, especially for Catholics and for women. A key difference between Cushla and Michael is that while misogyny and sectarian bigotry offend Michael in theory, he doesn’t grasp how completely they threaten Cushla’s world. He gets jealous over the steps she takes to conceal their relationship, registering the need to yet not totally understanding her level of unease. One of Cushla’s teachers-college classmates, we learn, got “sacked without a reference after someone wrote anonymously to the bishop that she was living in sin with her boyfriend.” Cushla fears similar repercussions, and monitors her own behavior to a greater extent than Michael ever needs to—hiding, then renouncing, her curiosity about his life to keep anyone from suspecting their affair.

Kennedy also illustrates the danger Cushla feels through the family of one of her students, Davy, whose mother, Betty, is Protestant, and whose dad, Seamie, is Catholic. The administration at the Catholic school where Cushla teaches is cruel to Davy, his siblings, and his parents; so is the majority-Protestant town. Kennedy relays this cruelty through gossip and domestic portraiture, using the family’s worn-out possessions to show their poverty just like she used Michael’s ironed shirt to show his wealth. Rumors spread that Betty is an unfit mother, thanks to the smells of cooking and mold that cling to her kids’ clothes—which, Cushla learns, results from the neighbors’ habit of throwing “dog’s dirt” at the family’s clothesline, forcing Betty to dry her laundry indoors. Cushla pushes back, telling people Betty’s house is “immaculate” and helping feed the kids after Seamie gets brutally beaten. But she can’t seem to persuade anyone to offer them, Betty least of all, some grace.

Smelly laundry and tidy nails may not sound like the stuff of war stories, or, depending on your biases, of serious fiction. Trespasses is baldly both. Seamie’s injuries—which, not incidentally, Cushla fully comprehends only when she sees Betty “washing stains from [his] clothes. It wasn’t blood, more like a fleshy color”—are, in the literal sense, deadly serious. Ultimately, so is Cushla’s affair with Michael, which takes on catastrophic moral weight for her by the novel’s end. Kennedy compels her readers to give the same heft to Cushla’s desires and emotions as to her political predicament. In the song “Life During Wartime,” the Talking Heads sing, “No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,” a lyric to which Trespasses gives the lie. Even during wartime, civilian life continues. Clothes get washed; rumors get spread; dinner parties get thrown; love gets made. To omit these details from our literature of conflict would be to produce a false literature. For habitual readers of war fiction that takes place in barracks or on battlefields—and, really, for any reader at all—Trespasses is a reminder of that truth.