Guardian review of Mill For Grinding Old People Young

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The Mill for Grinding Old People Young by Glenn Patterson – review

Belfast in the 19th century forms the backdrop to a triumphantly realised life

Christmas, 1897: 85-year-old Sir Gilbert Rice reflects on an exemplary life as a manufacturer and philantrophist. As he stands in the dark and cold, looking over Queen's Island, home to Belfast's fabled White Star shipping line, he cadges a cigarette from his cabman. The taste of the smoke is "as sharp as grief, as searing as desire"; it carries him back to his orphan youth in his wealthy grandfather's house in the city. The life remembered that Christmas night is the subject of Glenn Patterson's sixth and finest novel.

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Young Gilbert's Belfast at the beginning of the 19th century is a centre of commerce and piety, the rebels of the previous century buried with Wolfe Tone. The city merchants' longing for a deep-water port is thwarted at every turn by the decadent Lord Donegall. The city fathers aspire, but back-alley life is visceral. The innocent Gilbert is recruited as a bagman for cockfight gamblers: it is one of the achievements of the novel that the high-flown and the earthy exist side by side.

Gilbert has been given a start as a clerk in the Ballast Office. It's a time of measuring and improving. The heroes of the age are masters of the utilitarian, and the engineer James Walker's visit to the port causes a stir. Gilbert's friends are young men of leisure and little ambition, and Gilbert, thanks to his grandfather's position, shares their indolence. It is a chance encounter with Polish exile Maria in the flamboyantly named inn of the title that changes the course of his life.

Gilbert falls for this cosmopolitan girl, but when he finds that she is committed to a young Polish officer who is fighting the Russians, he despairs. In the fever of unrequited love, Gilbert decides to take the fate of the city into his own hands. He sets out to obtain a gun to shoot Lord Donegall, thus removing the chief barrier to the city's progress. He should be warned by the dark companions he makes for himself. There is a necropolis underlying the shining city, and its brutality touches him for a moment, but he persists in his folly. Only an unexpected flow of empathy between the wary radical Maria and his canny grandfather stands between him and the execution of his deluded plan.

The narrator's voice is a triumph. Gilbert is impetuous, earnest, self-deluding and brave. Life in another age can only be imagined, but this voice is near-perfect as an imagining. There is nothing radical in the structure of the novel, but Patterson reveals craftsmanship and eloquence in the interplay of past and present. The short end sections to the novel, with their reminders of promises made and kept, are the more powerful and moving for being understated.

Belfast absorbs Gilbert Rice. The city is mapped and meticulously described, but remains shadowy. The elderly Gilbert's Christmas eve had been spent in the Reform Club, watching a slideshow based on HG Wells's The Time Machine. Another era beckons, another layer of history. When the city is bombed by the Germans in 1941, a slate is discovered in the rubble. Inscribed by Gilbert's friend, the architect John Millar, it is a quarrelsome but humourous tract on mortality and bad architecture. There might be room here for weighty thoughts on history, but Patterson's too wily for that. Elegies are for people, not for eras.

Eoin McNamee's Orchid Blue is published by Faber.

Period13 Apr 2012

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  • TitleGuardian review of Mill For Grinding Old People Young
    PersonsGlenn Patterson