Local rather than international, the dramas and privations described in this memoir are not the stuff of headlines. This is the story of an ordinary boy growing up in Belfast after the war; an ordinary boy who would go on to become world-famous as a hostage in Beirut and author of the extraordinary testimony of imprisonment and survival that was An Evil Cradling.
In this remarkable and equally moving act of retrieval, Brian Keenan has captured the vanished world of 1950s Belfast in all its vivid vernacular and grey, post-war austerity. This is a time of licorice and Airfix models, pigeon-fanciers, street vendors selling coal and bleach and herring, street-fighters with lions on chains - a city where westerns were showing every afternoon at the Picture Theatre, where livestock was still herded onto the docks and the shipyards flourished. It was also a place of ghosts: the plague dead in the cemeteries, the family dead in the scrapbooks, a witch's box discovered under the stairs, the giant street bonfires every 12th of July to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne. By the end of the book, after his father's death and his mother's Alzheimer's, Belfast itself becomes a ghost city to Brian Keenan, the boy who leaves to become a man.
Rich in detail and atmosphere, I'll Tell Me Ma is an affectionate story of a disaffected childhood. At the centre is a shy, self-conscious boy of unusual moral integrity; a boy puzzled by religion and sectarianism, in love with books and music and full of curiosity about the world outside. A book of reclamation, I'll Tell Me Ma is also a coming-to-terms with the past: a resounding, thrilling record of redemption.