Close to Home

A Novel

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Pub Date May 16 2023 | Archive Date Jun 30 2023


While growing up in West Belfast, Sean does every­thing he's supposed to do. He works hard, he studies, and he - mostly - stays out of trouble. The thirty-year conflict is over, he's told, and his future is lit with promise.

But when Sean returns home from university, he finds much of the same-the same friends doing the same gear in the same clubs; the same lost broth­ers and mad fathers; the same closed doors; the same silences. There are no jobs, Sean's degree isn't worth the paper it's written on, and no one will give him the time of day. One night, he assaults a stranger at a party, and everything begins to come undone.

Close to Home begins with this sudden act of violence and expands into a startling portrait of working-class Ireland under the long shadow of the Troubles. It's a first novel drawn from life, written with the immediacy of thought. It's about what happens when men get desperate, about the cycles of loss and trauma and secrecy that keep them trapped, and about the struggle to get free.

While growing up in West Belfast, Sean does every­thing he's supposed to do. He works hard, he studies, and he - mostly - stays out of trouble. The thirty-year conflict is over, he's told, and his...

A Note From the Publisher

Michael Magee was born and grew up in West Belfast. He is the fiction editor of The Tangerine, and his work has appeared in Winter Papers, The Stinging Fly, and The Lifeboat, and in The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Writing. He recently received his PhD in creative writing from Queen’s University, Belfast. Close to Home is his first novel.

Michael Magee was born and grew up in West Belfast. He is the fiction editor of The Tangerine, and his work has appeared in Winter Papers, The Stinging Fly, and The Lifeboat, and in The 32: An...

Advance Praise

“An exceptional debut destined for novel of the year shortlists.” —Martin Doyle, The Irish Times

“A complex and compassionate portrait of modern Belfast by an impressive new talent.” —James Conor Paterson, The Times Literary Supplement

“A lyrical examination of masculinity, class, and poverty . . . [Magee’s prose] sings with the tenderness of a writer beyond his years.” Electric Literature (Most Anticipated)

★ “A consummate and searching bildungsroman of a young Belfast man trying to square his future with a painful heritage . . . Magee demonstrates profound psychological acuity and a keen sense of place, showing how Belfast has shaped his characters and how the past is etched into the streets . . . Readers won’t want this to end.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A poignant exploration of masculinity amid the latterday wreckage of the Troubles.” —Anthony Cummins, The Guardian (Best New Novelists of 2023)

“[Close to Home] marr[ies] the thematic unsentimentality of the French author Edouard Louis with prose reminiscent of Irvine Welsh . . . A convincing, nuanced debut.” —Luke Ward, Sunday Independent

★ “A young man in Northern Ireland sees little hope of escape from hard times in this persuasive debut . . . Magee’s is a dark tale but rather understated when compared with the extreme sorts of dead-enders found in Rob Doyle’s Here Are the Young Men (set in Dublin) and Gabriel Krauze’s Who They Was (in London) . . . An impressive coming-of-age tale.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“The best debut I've read in years—a tender examination of class, masculinity and place.” —Nicole Flattery, author of Show Them A Good Time

Close To Home announces an exciting new voice—at once open and wary, tender and unyielding—and sharply alive to the pains and discoveries and mysteries of youth.” —Colin Barrett, author of Homesickness

Close to Home does for Belfast what Shuggie Bain did for Glasgow. Its portrayal of a particular kind of masculinity—self-destructive and romantic by turns—is unsparing, funny and desperately sad. Keep an eye on Michael Magee; he's the real deal.” —Patrick Gale, author of A Place Called Winter

“A vision of a post-conflict Belfast that didn't deliver what it promised, blighted by poverty, pain and memory. But far from being bleak, I laughed out loud many times. And it is full of love. Each character is so vividly drawn that I felt like I had met them somewhere before; even the most flawed of them is treated with dignity and respect, and an absence of judgment that reminded me of Annie Ernaux. And the writing! Supple, rich and demotic—Kneecap meets Chekhov—no one else is doing this. I had great hopes for this novel and Michael Magee has booted it out of the park. Absolutely glorious.” —Louise Kennedy, author of Trespasses

“Beautifully observed and sharp as a knife tip—as real and as raw as the truths you tell on a comedown, in the early hours, in the darkness of some stranger's house. Deeply affecting and badly needed, this is a novel I will be thinking about for a long time.” —Lisa McInerney, author of The Glorious Heresies

“Wonderful. A debut overflowing with years of experience and carefully worked craft. By turns hard-edged and soft-hearted, this novel is a gift from Michael Magee to us all.” —Jon McGregor, author of Reservoir 13

“Michael Magee's first novel is superb. An emotionally true, keenly observed book that goes deep into the troubled territory of home, family and friendship, returning with a message of love.” —David Hayden, author of Darker with The Lights On

“As beautiful as it is brilliant. Reading Close to Home is like crossing a frontier into a new and thrilling territory.” —Glenn Patterson, author of The International

“Ringing out clear and true as a bell, it gleams with tenderness and perception. There are few narrators so unassuming and unaffected, yet so full of sharp intelligence.” —Wendy Erskine, author of Dance Move

“A sharp and humane novel about a young man, and a city, caught in the painful throes of reimagining themselves. It rings with authenticity, and the wisdom of hard-won observation and experience—a hymn to the ways in which art can be a lifeline and an escape. Michael Magee's debut is an important addition to the burgeoning new canon of Belfast literature.” —Lucy Caldwell, author of These Days

“An exceptional debut destined for novel of the year shortlists.” —Martin Doyle, The Irish Times

“A complex and compassionate portrait of modern Belfast by an impressive new talent.” —James Conor...

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ISBN 9780374608323
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Featured Reviews

Achingly beautiful. If I could give this book more than 5 stars, I would. Close to Home is an exquisite piece of literary fiction detailing the harsh realities of growing up in Belfast during a recession and living under the thumb of generational trauma.

In his debut novel, Michael Magee describes the story of 22-year-old Belfast native Sean, a working class citizen with an English degree struggling to make ends meet and after he has assaulted a man at a party. His older brother, Anthony, is in the throws of addiction and stirs up turmoil in Seans family, while his Mother struggles to make peace with the life she has given herself and her sons. Aside from personal struggles, The Troubles also haunt Sean and those around him. Our protagonist fights to crawl out from under the oppressive hopelessness of his community while battling family and cultural trauma, self-hate, and his class background.

This novel dissects the themes of generational trauma, addiction and violence, poverty, self-loathing, and class lines in breathtaking prose, leaving the reader with a feeling of deep understanding and empathy for those living in a society permeated by trauma and despair. Fans of Sally Rooney and Douglas Stuart will enjoy this novel, as well as those who feel adrift in early adulthood.

Thank you NetGalley for this ARC. I loved it.

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In his debut novel, Magee tells the story of 22-year-old Sean, a Belfast working class kid who graduates with a degree in English, but can't find a job due to the recession. It's 2013 and Sean is adrift, his family, friends and the whole town are haunted by what happened during The Troubles, and his class background and family trauma contribute to an atmosphere of hopelessness that our protagonist tries to fight in his own way. But it's an uphill battle: The book opens with Sean assaulting a young man after feeling diminished and ridiculed by him and his crowd at a party. Sean refuses to plead guilty and is sentenced to a high fine and 200 hours of community service, and the text covers the time it takes for him to work off his sentence while battling marginalization and coming to terms with toxic masculinity: What is his responsibility, what his agency? And how can he find a place for himself, the aspiring writer?

The organic and absorbing novel manages to negotiate various themes: There are The Troubles, which are still very much present in the biographies and conduct of many of the characters; there is the destiny of the working class, impersonated mainly by Sean's mother, an art-loving woman who fell pregnant as a teenager, is now a twice divorced mother of three and tries to get by as a cleaning lady; there are Sean's brothers who struggle with addiction and violent outbursts as well as his old mates who hardly get by and regularly escape by partying a.k.a numbing themselves; and there is Sean's struggle to fit in: He graduated in Liverpool and is now back in Belfast, torn between his old friends in the working class part of town and the Belfast college crowd, the link being his old school mate Mairéad who also crossed class lines. While it is not entirely plausible that an English graduate who supposedly chilled with the student crowd in Liverpool has now such severe habitus issues in Belfast, the feeling of being caught between class lines is in itself very well portrayed.

Much like Shuggie Bain or Trainspotting, "Close to Home" investigates a society permeated by trauma and hopelessness, and how young people cope (or don't cope) growing up in such an atmosphere - and it does so in a nuanced way: Sean is not only a victim, he is also a perpetrator and makes bad decisions. Still, as a reader, you can see where he is coming from, and you will start rooting for him (and his mother). Sean feels like no matter whether he does good and works hard or whether he fails and slacks, the outcome is the same, and there are powers that he can't overcome: Stricken by poverty so severe that he steals food to get by and repeatedly forced to change plans due to circumstance, he still decides to stay and fight, while many of his friends try to escape by leaving Belfast.

His most oppressive battle is the one against his self-loathing: Sean feels like a failure, like dirt. All the while, he is searching for his father who abandoned him, and his teenage half-sister, Aiofe - but why? He doesn't know himself, as he wants to know where his dad is, but he also hates him for the terrible things he did. Sean also fears that literature won't save him, and his terror of being right about this assumption is so severe that he hardly dares to try. The book offers quite some references to world literature, from existentialist novels over László Krasznahorkai to Marcel Proust and Milan Kundera.

This novel is definite Booker material - after Audrey Magee in 2022, Michael Magee is a must for the 2023 longlist.

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A young man, Sean, returns to Belfast from Liverpool with an English Literature degree during a recession. With little opportunity for work and no money, he reconnects with troubled young men from his youth and is caught in a pattern of substance abuse, partying, violence, and the constant threat of violence. Sean both makes many mistakes and is judged unfairly by those in positions of power, and I found myself anxious throughout the story as to whether he would make another bad decision and how others would trample on any hope he had left.

The story is a compelling read, and I couldn't put it down for long, needing to know what would become of Sean. Particularly insightful and touching was to see him re-establish a friendship with Mairead, his friend from childhood. The subplots of his mother's revelations of her experiences raising her children and his brother Anthony's struggles were both touching and heartbreaking.

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