Future Popes of Ireland is a character-driven novel about the messiness of life and the way it unfolds, with a side helping of social relevance. Granny Doyle wants her family to produce the first Irish pope, but things don’t go as planned, and she finds herself bringing up four grandchildren: five year old Peg and infant triplets Damian, Rosie, and John Paul. As they all grow up, things don’t go as Granny Doyle planned, and soon the siblings are scattered. Peg left home as a teenager and is far away in New York now, Damian’s musing political ideals and love whilst trying to tell his grandmother about his sexuality, Rosie is a dreaming activist who hopes of making her big sister confront the past, and John Paul has taken his pope role in a rather different direction than might have been hoped.
The narrative spans from 1979 to 2011, focusing on different siblings and their grandmother as their lives are weaved. Underpinning the story is the backdrop of Ireland and beyond: abortion and the 8th amendment, environmental issues, LGBT rights, war in the Middle East, and hope and despair in politics. This element gives the novel a relevant feel, rather than just being another novel focused on a family’s messy personal drama. The characters are frustrating in a good way, flawed and foolish and unlikely to have a magical happy ending.
This is a novel that from the summary sounds like a lot of other books out there, but it has a surprising spark in its relevance and its depiction of messy and not easily described human lives. Levels of ambiguity and unspoken facts give it narrative power, and it can be witty and heart-warming as well as cutting.