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Sara Baume reviews Martina Evans's newest poetry collection




Sara Baume

Sara Baume is a Cork-based arts writer. Her reviews, interviews, essays and reportage on visual art and literature have been published online and in print: from Circa art magazine, the Visual Artists Ireland Newsheet and Paper Visual Art Journal to The Stinging Fly magazine, HTMLGiant and The Short Review.











Petrol by Martina Evans


Martina Evans

(Anvil, 2012)

ISBN: 978-0-85646-448-5

£8.05 paperback

Buy from Anvil





In the space of a single November afternoon, sitting cross-legged on my hearth rug in front of a flickering log fire, I read Petrol from start to finish. Narrated by thirteen-year-old Imelda McConnell, the novellas pace keeps perfect time with the tripping thoughts and reckless babble of a guileless young teenager. From the very first sentence, Imelda is sparkling with life and spitting whispers in my ear, casually confiding her dark memories of the past and curious ideas about the present. Last time Mammy took Agnes and me down the fields, says Imelda, she took all her clothes out of a big suitcase and threw them into the river and started bawling crying. She tells her story with such spirit and conviction that it would have seemed rude to cut her off by marking a page and closing the book, by setting it aside for another day. 

            Imelda is the youngest of three sisters: Bertha is the plain and persecuted eldest, Agnes is the beautiful and adored middle child. Justin McConnell is landlord and proprietor of the pub, shop and petrol station which make up the heartland of Imeldas small world. He is a fearsome and tyrannical figure, with a knack for cutting sarcasm and a taste for Hamlet cigars. Although he is the girls father, his daughters always refer to him coldly as Justin. Justin was everywhere, says Imelda, worse than God. 

            Petrol takes place at a period of the McConnell sisters’ history which heralds the arrival of Clodagh, Justins soon-to-be third wife. Its the same period in which Imelda experiences her first romantic tumble in a hay barn. Imeldas fellow tumbler is Danny Boy, a nineteen-year-old farmer with a resemblance to Omar Sharif and a taste for Bourneville bars. For this is rural Cork in 1974: a time of Scots Clan, Lux soap, wooden tills and Golly bars; a time when dark chocolate represented the height of exoticism and sophistication. Its also a time when it was perfectly acceptable to lock the pub doors against tinkers, to report your neighbours to the local priest for amoral misdeeds and to beat your own children with a leather strap.

            However, Imelda is less beleaguered by violence of a physical kind than she is by the McConnell familys flimsy balance of power. Amongst sisters, all is rivalry and spite one moment, compassionate advice and the sharing of pineapple bars the next. Your treachery is etched on my mind forever, Agnes informs Imelda at one point, as psychological punishment for the most minor of misdemeanours. Justin is every bit as cruelly inconsistent in his affections, and the arrival of Clodagh only aggravates more trouble as she slyly stirs away at the cauldron of everybodys simmering disgruntlements.

            In the wings of Imeldas small world, theres a cast of locals who sit on their high stools around the bar and call to the shop to fill their petrol tanks and collect their messages. They lend such texture and authenticity that the seemingly humdrum events of the McConnell sisters’ history are every bit as complex, tumultuous, humorous and tragic as any of the films, television programmes and books which surround Imelda, from Ryan's Daughter, to Night Gallery, to Catcher in the Rye.

            In the space of a single November afternoon, sitting cross-legged on my hearth rug in front of a flickering log fire, I read Petrol from start to finish. 

            And as I closed over the cover and placed the book back down, it took me some moments to readjust to my actual surroundings, to return myself to the upstairs living room on a winters night. For some moments, I wholly believed that the chink of the poker was the bell of the McConnells shop door dinging, that the radio playing in an adjacent room was Bertha listening to her Barbara Cartlands”, and that the creak of a door in the hallway was the sound of the BP sign swinging ominously from its towering pole. 


©2012 Sara Baume



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