Simon Kerr

"The Rainbow Singer"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 08, 2002)

And I saw the anger flare in his eye, along with something I now know was pity because I too pity my young self.

1985 is the height of The Troubles in Ireland. It is also the summer that 14-year-old Wil Carson, "a no-hoper from the backstreets of East Belfast," has the good fortune to visit America as a substitute in the Ulster Project. He's all for it until he learns that Catholics (or "Taigs," as he calls them) will be traveling with him. ("The Taigs. They're taking Taigs with Prods. It's some jiggery-popery or other.") But his Ma whose the one that signed him up, pulls in his Da, the biggest bigot of all, and talks him into taking advantage of a free trip. So Wil agrees to go to Milwaukee if only to fulfill the vision of his American dreams: to gorge on burgers, ride in a pink Cadillac, see the naked sorority girls' like in the movie Porky's and bring home an American Football helmet.

Read excerptAs to be expected, the purpose of the Ulster Project is to teach the kids about peace and reconciliation. The plan is to bring 10 kids (5 Protestants and 5 Catholics) from Northern Ireland to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to learn how to make friends of their enemies. They will be matched up with 10 kids in America, as each projectee will live with an American family who has a teenager of the same sex, age and religion. As a substitute projectee, Wil is the only one of the kids not exactly matched up. His host, Derry, is a year older and his family is Presbyterian, not Baptist. To stimulate the kids to work together they are to put on a talent show as well as participate in pre-planned activities.

And the truth is, up until this point, Wil's never even talked to a Taig or come face to face with their "Cyclops eye" (as he explains, he was led to believe in this eugenic mythology). At least not until this first meeting with the other projectees and he shake hands with the Taig councilor, Ciaran. All of this makes him ill. Even the Prods are people he can't relate to, like Michael with his "big bourgeois head." But then he spies Phil who's a small Prod like him, wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt, a fellow Metaller. Bonding over a conversation about Van Halen, Wil makes a friend for the trip, if not for life.

He also has makes an enemy. During a football match at this first meeting, the Taig Peter Byrne fouls him in a dirty play. With no referee to call it, it quickly escalates into a fight, with Seamus Finnegan backing up Peter and shoving Wil's head in the sand. So with this humiliation, Wil's hatred went from "impersonal, inbred, idealistic" to very personal, namely against Peter, the hacker and Sheamus, his backer. Obviously the Ulster Project is doomed from the start.

This more personal hatred escalates on the flight over to America as Seamus and Peter manage to further humiliate Wil and Phil. Wil vows vengeance served cold. But meanwhile, Wil, with his teenage hormones, finds himself attracted to the Taig girl Teresa, which is a little unsettling for him. And then he meets his new "family." Even though Derry is a year older, he's into movies and metal like Wil. He also doesn't mind pulling pranks and is real curious about Wil's secret activities with the UFF, the Ulster Freedom Fighters. As it turns out, Derry is more readily converted to hating the Taigs than he is to being a good role model for the Ulster Project where is supposed to show Wil how to be friends with the Catholics.

Given that Wil is retelling the events of that summer from a Wisconsin prison cell some fifteen years later, we know that something bad is going to happen. But until the end, it is impossible to imagine how volatile a mix it is to combine this inbred hatred with the American propensity for violence. In fact, what makes this story really worthwhile is that by narrating from the vantage point of fifteen years later, he's had enough time to read and think about what happened and why. It is with this hindsight, that Will explains that he can't be blamed for what he did; he really didn't know any better because it is what his father and all fathers have taught their good Prod sons. "I didn't make my life happen. Time made me. Why am I supposed to regret what I did when I was brought up by God-loving, God-fearing Christians to do it? They taught me to call people Taigs, and hate those they said were Taigs, so like a good Prod I hated Taigs so much I could have killed every last one of them." Because the novel is actually from the perspective of a 29-year-old man, he's able to relate the harrowing events of that summer with sardonic black humor, basically making for a highly quotable book as well as thought provoking.

Unlike many novels in which the events of the story bring about change by the end of the novel, in The Rainbow Singer, the change happens outside the pages of the novel way before the first page. However, the voice of the narrator remains adolescent most likely because he has not had any other life experiences since the event (outside of prison). So the narrator is able to recount the events with much of the same emotion and lilt of the boy that he was, but with helpful insights that show us where his thinking might have been incorrect or at least the cause of his behavior.

I actually read The Rainbow Singer back in July (the same month as the events of the story and the annual Orange Order parade) but procrastinated finishing writing the review, not because I didn't enjoy the novel (I did!), but because I was stuck trying to express how profound I found it to be. With the anniversary of September 11 approaching, I felt it was high time that I get on with this review and make my recommendation, which is simply, read this book. Wil Carson's story is well told and can be quickly read. However, it's hard to pass over his comments about the entwining nature of religion and hatred.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Rainbow Singer at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Simon KerrSimon Kerr was born in Belfast in 1971 but now lives in what was "enemy territory" to him: namely the Republic of Ireland. He was awarded the Brian Moore Short Story Award and holds an MFA from Bath Spa University. He is currently at work on his second novel.
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