The Rules of Revelation is the third part of Lisa McInerney’s “unholy trinity” of Cork novels, which began with the Women’s prize-winning The Glorious Heresies in 2015 and continued with 2017’s The Blood Miracles. McInerney’s world is a compellingly sleazy demi-monde of drug dealers, sex workers and property developers, and she has a pleasing disdain for minimalism: here you’ll find big characters and lots of them, having big emotions and going through so much incident that keeping on top of the plot can leave you with the enjoyably dazed feeling of trying to follow a close-up magic trick.
At the centre of this world is Irish-Italian Ryan Cusack. In Heresies he was a teenager torn between his love of music and junior gangster life, and heading for a fall. In Miracles, he served out his purgatory in Naples, where he faced off against the Camorra. Now Ryan is back in Ireland and hoping to make it as a legitimate citizen: he’s out of the drug business and is the singer in a band on the brink of breaking through. Success and redemption seem imminent.
Except that Ryan’s past can’t leave him alone – or Ryan can’t leave his past alone, and the uncertainty about who is holding on to whom is typical of the rich tangle of motivations that animates McInerney’s storytelling. Her characters all share that urge to flee from the city and get free of each other, yet whenever they threaten to succeed, something calls them back.
For Ryan, the ties that bind take very physical form now that his on-off girlfriend Karine is also the mother of his son. It’s a relationship that practically begs you to pin the label “codependency” on it: “Karine had always considered herself one of a system. One daughter in three, one dancer in a crew, one friend of a squad. Something to someone. There was little she could do about the fact that she was defined by a man’s absence.”
Karine’s mates do plenty of eye-rolling, as you would if you were her friend, but in the McInerneyverse, you must keep your history close. The Cork novels take place in a self-consciously modern Ireland, with all its contradictions: “To be Irish was to be resentful, flippant, European, nationalist … young, gifted and damp.” Yet while this is no longer the country of the Magdalene laundries, it is still a country that must square up to its misdeeds.
So it’s inevitable that Ryan and Karine should pick up where they left off. Inevitable, too, that when Ryan’s band needs a stand-in guitarist, they recruit Mel, Ryan’s childhood nextdoor neighbour, whose mother, Tara, played her own decisive role in Ryan’s story before disappearing. The band’s manifesto reads: “Art and honesty are inseparable. You must reveal something about yourself with everything you create. These are our rules.” And whether Ryan wishes to or not, he’s going to live by it.
Meanwhile, Maureen Phelan – “five foot three and comprised mostly of cardigans”, the mother to Jimmy Phelan, Ryan’s former gangland boss – has embarked on her own mission to set the record straight, not just in the personal sense but regarding the whole city. “Cork is a very male place,” she thinks, resentfully. “But then I suppose isn’t that the way of history? It’s all fecking men.” Her quest to uncover town mothers to match the town fathers fleshes out the novel’s sense of place, as she pounds the streets delivering ad hoc lectures to German tourists.
Also in the business of rewriting the narrative is former sex worker Georgia, whom Ryan once ushered out of the country at the barrel of a gun. When she catches wind of his return, she decides that justice demands the truth of his criminal career be told and recruits journalist Medbh, perhaps the least ethical fictional hack since JK Rowling’s Rita Skeeter, to help her spread the word. As Medbh trims and shapes Georgia’s story to appeal to “those who yearned to be horrified and those who got off on their own great empathy”, she might be a reproach to the prurient reader or a knowing stand-in for the author: in this morally thorny melodrama, it makes sense for her to be a bit of both.
Where previous entries in the trilogy have sometimes had a feeling of almost too much happening, Revelation exercises just enough restraint to avoid being overwhelming, and in doing so brings the saga of Ryan to a satisfying completion. “It was simultaneously the end of the world and the best time to be Irish,” writes McInerney. “Was it not all they could do to tell the story of it?”
• The Rules of Revelation is published by John Murray (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.