Terrorist-in-training painted as a victim

review of The Rainbow Singer by Simon Kerr, publisher: Hyperion

Moe Berg, Edmonton Journal, August 18, 2002

With The Rainbow Singer, Irish writer Simon Kerr introduces another "coming-of-age" novel to the literary marketplace, albeit one with a twist. The author cites The Catcher In The Rye as an influence, and there are slight similarities. Like Holden Caulfield, Wil Carson is an unusually self-aware teenager. But that's where the comparisons end. Wil is a member of the youth wing of the Ulster Freedom Fighters who loves Van Halen and hates Irish Catholics, or "Taigs." His parents ship him off to Milwaukee, Wis., as part of Project Ulster, which brings Irish Catholic and Protestant teens together with American families to try to see if they can make peace on neutral territory. As bad luck would have it, Wil ends up being billeted with a family whose son, Derry, resembles The Incredible Hulk, both in size and temperament. They team up with two other heavy metal-loving Protestants on the Project and export the "Troubles" to the American Midwest.

Enter Theresa, a pretty Catholic girl Wil meets on the plane over the Pond. After a brief romance, Theresa, who could be Wil's salvation, is forced to dump him. While we feel for Wil, we also know he had it within himself to salvage the relationship. Once jilted, Wil channels his energy into hatred of the Taigs, specifically Seamus and Peter.

An adult Wil, who seems to have gained loads of perspective on his 14-year-old self, narrates the book. He speaks of how he sacrificed himself "on the altar of patriarchy." In fact, most things are blamed on the "Father," the root of all evil. Clearly, Wil, the product of an abusive father and a blood feud, bears the burden of his upbringing. However, readers may be excused for finding Kerr's relentless demonizing of the patriarchy a bit tiring. As Wil uses the so-called sins of the father to justify his actions, he does indeed feel justified and never questions the rightness of his position.

The Rainbow Singer, in many ways, is every parent's nightmare. Wil and his Metal Mafia are a bunch of violent, testosterone-driven metalheads acting on their worst impulses and blaming it all on their imperfect Ma and Da. The story would read easier were Wil a bit more likable.

Largely, he comes off as a homophobic, hate-filled terrorist-in-training who refuses to take responsibility for his actions. If Kerr, through Wil, intends to explain the reasons for the "Troubles" in Ireland, all he really does is illustrate how intractable they are.

When the much-alluded-to climax finally arrives, it's pretty anti-climactic. Readers are not allowed to make their own judgments as Kerr has carefully painted Wil as a victim. Kerr also saves his main character by making Derry the real maniac. Derry's homicidal tendencies are somewhat more difficult to explain, other than being a "Son" of a "Father."

Some may read The Rainbow Singer as a cautionary tale, which it surely is. Yet one might wonder if Kerr's own successful experience in Project Ulster might have made a better and, at least, more hopeful novel. It's too bad. Kerr, when he isn't proselytizing, is a good storyteller, and the first 50 pages of this book read like a dream. Perhaps it can be chalked up to youth; age and experience might loosen Kerr's obvious talent. As it is, The Rainbow Singer comes off as a rant with Wil spending too much time wallowing in self-pity instead of becoming a man, which is what characters in coming-of-age novels are supposed to do.

©Copyright 2002 CanWest Global Communications Corp.

previous Moe book review Features Index next Moe book review