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The International

A novel by

The International Hotel lies at the heart of Belfast city, in a "lingering opulence" of black marble, mosaic and frosted glass. It is January 1967, the day before the inaugural meeting of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association will put the hotel on the map, long before failing business will remove it in 1975.

The novel sweeps in a leisurely and hugely enjoyable arc through that day as seen by the hotel's newest barman, 18-year-old Danny Hamilton, who has been forced to bar work after a homosexual indiscretion, known as "the Unpleasantness" at a school dance. Danny blends in perfectly with the crafty, nuanced apolitical ambiance, having non-religious, mixed faith parents who felt that choosing between being Protestant and Catholic was like "choosing between turnip and swede." These are the days of brown lemonade, fizzy orange and hives, a time before Belfast was televised, when it was known as "the City That Can't Stay Awake". Danny finds that his tentative attempts to find sex match the general furtiveness of sex in the North. He has his eye on Stanley, a puppeteer who spends his day in the bar waiting to meet "the man from Crackerjack" and also, for different reasons, on a young woman called Ingrid, in a pink suit and hat, who's threatening to disrupt the wedding party in the Damask Room upstairs. Patterson's portrait of the camaraderie of the barstaff, with their sharp quips, agile movements and speedy customer assessment is beautifully drawn. "... the till never stopped. Jamesie and I flung ourselves about like tennis players, every serve met by an instant return."

The writing is packed with verve as Patterson not only builds a lushly cinematic atmosphere of the hotel, but also a funny and endearing picture of a city about to be ruptured almost beyond all recognition. The menace is subtly handled as it becomes clear that Danny has been employed because four staff have been shot two weeks before, one, Peter Ward, being the same age as Danny. The nostalgia for what Belfast might have been had it not "disgraced itself" is carefully restrained. In a remarkably understated postscript which details the fate many of the characters were to meet in the seventies, Patterson demonstrates his skill in evoking the circularity and quietly sad irony of Northern Ireland's tragedies. "Oh, it just goes on and on, I shouldn't get started." --Cherry Smyth

Genre: Literary Fiction

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