The Irish writer Gavin McCrea was supposed to be writing the third in a loose trilogy of novels about the development of communism, following Mrs Engels (2015), told in the voice of Friedrich Engels’s Irish wife, Lizzie Burns, and The Sisters Mao (2021), set in China and London during the 60s and 70s. By his own account in an interview last year, the next book will run from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the 2008 financial crash. But it got put on hold when, in February 2020, McCrea was the target of homophobic street violence while walking home. The painful memories that the attack stirred brought the structure of a memoir pouring out of him during a late-night writing session and he had no choice but to carry on.
The reader who picks up the result – flayingly authentic and sensationally compelling – will likewise be rooted to the spot. Cells opens when McCrea returns to Dublin from a spell living abroad late in 2019. The advent of the pandemic adds an unforeseen dimension to his decision to stay and look after his widowed mother, a former care home worker who is becoming increasingly forgetful; under locked-down chit-chat about crosswords and vegetarian meals, he seethes with unlanced resentment that she didn’t do more when he was the victim of homophobic bullying at high school in the 1990s.
McCrea divides the narrative into seven episodes ranging fluently in time via nested memories told with reference to psychoanalysis (“According to Carl Jung… As Freud says…”) and art (the title refers, among other things, to Louise Bourgeois’s work of the same name). He writes with arresting precision, whether he’s introducing us to his mother’s flat (“There are 15 steps up, covered in an old carpet of beige, mauve, burgundy, and blue stripes... After six steps, I am in the seating area, which consists of three ill-matching bits of furniture”) or recounting a recurring dream about wetting himself in the presence of his agent’s son.
We see him lose his temper when his mother keeps interrupting him while he’s trying to write – about her
We read of how McCrea’s articulacy at primary school made him popular until a class performance of Rumpelstiltskin in which he boldly played the miller’s daughter; secondary school brought taunts and beatings by gangs chanting “McGay”. The experience, he writes, “ultimately reconstituted my very material, gave me a new kind of physicality altogether… my shoulder blades protruding out of my back like fins, my entire skeleton crowding in around my breastplate to protect my heart”. His father, a depressed travelling salesman, tells him he looks like a freak – and then denies saying it.
Like Édouard Louis in The End of Eddy, a novel with which Cells (a tighter, subtler book) is in explicit dialogue, McCrea’s reflections extend to the anthropological and philosophical. Asking himself what impelled his bullies, he wonders: “What did they know that I did not?… What did gay mean for them?” The question prompts reflection on what it means for him, too, as he retraces the steps by which he rejected “the seizure of my right to define my own feelings by those who claimed, not only to have no personal experience of such feelings, but to have an active aversion to them”.
McCrea’s older siblings have problems of their own, also displayed, not obviously with their consent – part of the book concerns his mentally unwell elder brother, N, seen claiming vaguely to have inspired the bar of pink soap on the poster for the film Fight Club after living among “powerful people” in America. If the reader has qualms, the least you can say is that McCrea never lets himself off the hook either; we see him lose his temper when his mother keeps interrupting him while he’s trying to write – about her – an irony he’s fully alive to (and one that perhaps echoes his memory of his mixed feelings when he sees her reading Brokeback Mountain with “more concern for… a pair of fictional cowboys in Wyoming than for her real gay son”).
The narrative detonations are relentless. McCrea’s father dies suddenly while he is at university. He sells his first novel and on the same day gets a diagnosis of HIV; the resulting breakdown of his violent relationship with a Venezuelan lover he meets online leaves him conducting a tricky overseas exchange with the man’s sexologist mother – a detail you wouldn’t believe in a novel. And then there’s the assault that led McCrea to write the book, described in a remarkable passage full of complicated feelings, not least his desire to give his attackers the recognition they crave by immortalising their crime.
When asked why he wrote fiction from the perspective of women, McCrea said it was because he was trying to understand his mother. Cells cuts to the chase with bruising yet invigorating clarity. Yes, it remorselessly hangs out a family’s dirty laundry, but it’s also a sharp piece of social and cultural analysis, not to mention a laying bare of the mysterious impulses behind the wish to write. Whether the tang left on the air by the final page is petrichor or just scorched earth probably isn’t for us to gauge, but Cells is one of 2022’s best books either way.
Cells: Memories for My Mother by Gavin McCrea is published by Scribe (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply