Every once and a while you read one of these books: after the first few pages you’re thinking, well, this has got promise... And the deeper you go, you’re smiling a little to yourself, observing: it’s got potential to be a masterpiece. Let’s see where the author takes this… And by the time you’ve finished—the last chapters like narcotics burning in the bloodstream—your brain is glowing with ideas and your head is shaking itself in disbelief, wondering if literature gets any better. I don’t suspect everyone will have the same reaction, but Keith Roberts’ 1987 Grainne is one such book for me. Problem is, the body left in such a state of fuzzy warmth, it makes defending this point difficult: where to begin?
It’s probably best to start with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The semi-autobiographical story of an Irish boy who grows up to find his place in the world and art, he leaves home under troubled circumstances to discover life for himself and learn how his creative talents fit within it. From one perspective, Grainne is very similar. The story of one Alistair Bevan, he too makes the decision to break away from family as a youth to pursue what he thinks best for himself. Studying art at university and developing writing skills in his free time, Bevan’s initial steps into the professional world are timid and half-confident at best. His creations unsellable and publishers rejecting the stories, he lives a dissatisfied life among the lower rungs of society, barely making ends meet. Bevans a pseudonym Roberts used at the beginning of his career, the character arc, and the obvious facts Roberts was both writer and illustrator (Roberts provided the cover and chapter headers for Grainne) put the novel on par with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in more than one way.