For this month’s theme of Book Club, Dónal Murray-Ferris reviews A Good Hiding, a story full of deep secrets and the forging of an unlikely friendship. Set in Belfast, Northern Ireland it explores hard topics including sexuality, teen pregnancy and domestic abuse set against the backdrop of a city known for it’s difficult history.
A Good Hiding is Lisburn born Shirley-Anne McMillan’s follow up to Widow’s Row. As an ex-English Teacher in Northern Ireland and a strong advocate for LGBTQ+ rights (including being the founder of a Gay Straight Alliance at Shimna Integrated College in Northern Ireland) she moved into writing Young Adult novels during her studies for her Masters in Creative Writing in 2012. It was while studying that she wrote and self-published Widow’s Row.
A Good Hiding follows the lives of two Belfast teenagers Stephen and Nollaig. Stephen is an academic and hard-working student with an aptitude for art, while Nollaig tends to skip lessons and get herself into a lot of trouble at school; but the unlikely pair are the best of friends. Stephen is openly gay to most and as a result, receives a great deal of bullying at the school he attends. Stephen’s biggest struggle in life is not his issue with his sexuality, but the issue of those around him; particularly, his Headmaster who on one occasion requests Stephen helps himself by acting less different around the other boys.
In an interview by Culture Hub Magazine, when asked how she wrote her characters, McMillan said “I’ve never been a teenage single mum-to-be, I’m not a gay boy, I just imagine characters and their feelings” and that they are amalgamations of people she has met.
Stephen finds solace in his art and in his confidante Nollaig but as the story begins she isn’t in a great place to be there for him. She has a secret she needs to keep hidden from her abusive dad and everyone at school and she chooses to go into hiding in a local church in Belfast. The truth is Nollaig is pregnant at 15 and with no responsible adult to turn to she feels her only choice is to run away and try to make it on her own. She trusts only Stephen with her secret and does her best to ensure it remains just the way.
Speaking from personal experience, Northern Ireland can be a difficult place to grow up for teenagers – such as Nollaig and Stephen. As a country, it isn’t very progressive in it’s view of the LGBTQ+ community. It has only recently became legal for same gender couples to be able to adopt children and a same-sex marriage motion has been thrown out by the government numerous times using the petition of concern. It is also still illegal for any woman in Northern Ireland to have an abortion unless it can be proven the birth could cause harm to the mother.
Shirley’s book explores these themes very well without being overly political. She lets the story speak for itself and for the readers to form their opinions on the events that unfold. It could have been very easy to make this book a political statement on the current state of Northern Ireland’s politics and religion, and whilst these themes are present they take a back seat which is very refreshing to read.
Speaking from personal experience, Northern Ireland can be a difficult place to grow up for teenagers such as Nollaig and Stephen. As a country, it isn’t very progressive in it’s view of the LGBTQ+ community.
While we find out more about the lives of our characters and the horrors they have suffered in their lives at the hands of abusive parents, loss and heartbreak, the book keeps a sense of warmth and humour. The relationship between Stephen and Nollaig is that of a true friendship. They love each other and they argue and fall out, but at the end of the day they are always there for each other when times are tough.
One of the nicest aspects of the story was seeing events playing out from different character’s points of view. The book alternates chapters from the point of view of Stephen to Nollaig and sometimes to the church Vicar Brian.
It could have been very easy to make this book a political statement on the current state of Northern Ireland’s politics and religion, and whilst these themes are present they take a back seat which is very refreshing to read.
Covering the issues of sexuality and transvestism in a book aimed at young adults was a risk, but a risk that paid off. The main protagonists are immature and do use the term ‘tranny’ quite liberally but it is obviously used by the author in context of what their age would say in this situation and not used to poke fun.
The relationship between Stephen and Nollaig is that of a true friendship. They love each other but they argue and fall out but at the end of the day they are always there for each other when times are tough.
Belfast was a great choice of location for the story and the book is filled with true Northern Irish humour and sayings that make the country’s take on the English language so unique. You may need a book of phrases to translate words like ‘mitching’, but once you get your head round the lingo you’re treated to a lovely exploration of the reality of the city. No, I am not talking about the Titanic Quarter or the famous murals but the Goths that hang outside City Hall on a Saturday and a few trips to Tesco and Poundland.
A Good Hiding is a great exploration of how it is be different and for people to not understand who you are or what your life is like whether that be because of your sexuality, your hair style or your religion. It manages to cover a range of topics without letting them overpower the story. Filled with drama, laughs and a humorous scene involving a frilly pink bra, this story of friendship is a real page turner and with it’s wide appeal I would recommend it as a read for those beyond Young Adult reading age.
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