Sue Divin’s debut YA novel Guard Your Heart is a modern Romeo and Juliet set in Northern Ireland. Told with unflinching honesty, it captures the hatred and violence of five centuries and brings to light the walls that still exist both literally and metaphorically in the 21st century.
By Emily Lüter
Walking down O’Connell Street north of the Liffey towards the Spire, one can still see the bullet holes in the General Post Office Dublin that were fired during the Easter Rising in 1916 – the year that marks the Irish fight for independence. The holes are a reminder of the violence that ensued in a civil war which claimed many victims and split a country in half. In Sue Divin’s debut YA novel Guard Your Heart the author explores the lingering hostilities and prejudices that separate Northern Ireland and the star-crossed lovers Iona and Aidan even in times of peace.
A city torn apart
Iona – an Anglo-Irish Protestant – and Aidan – a Unionist Catholic – meet under circumstances that are hardly favourable for a blossoming love story: Iona’s friends attack Aidan on his way home at night when they hear him speaking Irish. The language he uses betrays on which side of the lingering sectarianism he stands and marks him as a target for violence. Iona films the assault and decides to put all prejudices behind and do the right thing. When they meet to exchange the evidence for a possible criminal charge, they both realise that their feelings are not affected by the walls that separate them, both metaphorically and literally, in a city whose name changes according to your stance towards England: Derry or Londonderry.
The geography of the city has its own semantics; separated by the River Foyle, Protestants and Catholics have to cross a bridge to get to the other side. Even though they share one city, that city is a very different one for both sides. The dichotomy runs through the very identity of many Northern Irish people: Protestant – Catholic, Irish – English, Nationalist – Unionist. The split in the country, in the people, affects every aspect of their lives. Aidan and Iona, when they first meet, take cautious steps towards each other, trying to bridge the chasm of sectarianism. The split goes beyond physical borders and it takes their love to find common ground.
Irish Romeo and Juliet
Guard Your Heart is a modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and shows with unflinching honesty the violence and extremism that smoulder beneath the surface of a society trying to overcome the trauma of 500 years of colonisation and fighting. Both Iona and Aidan were born on Good Friday, the day the peace treaty was signed, but their lives are very far removed from any kind of peace. Even in the 21st century their families and the communities they belong to view the other side with contempt. Aidan is seen by Iona’s family not as an individual but as a political entity, an enemy, and it takes both lovers’ tenacity to overcome their prejudices. Over time they try to prove that it takes getting to know the individual in order to understand and, even more importantly, accept the other side. After all, the side we are on is more often than not determined by the flip of a coin, as Aidan thinks at a barbecue organized to welcome refugees from Syria:
For Sue Divin, stories are a way of inciting empathy, understanding and acceptance. In the afterword she explains her motivation for writing the novel in the first place: »Why do I write? I like to make people think. I hope that Guard Your Heart will do that. Conflict dehumanises the ›other‹. Stories connect us to the ›other‹. I write because fiction is a powerful tool for creating empathy, and empathy is a powerful tool for creating peace.«
And Divin succeeds in doing so. Alternating between the two narrative perspectives, the reader gets an intimate insight into Aidan’s and Iona’s thoughts. The two perspectives rub against each other, conflict with one another and eventually complement each other. The complex and complicated thought processes which are displayed by both characters are contrasted by short and initially superficial dialogues between them. A single spoken sentence is sometimes the product of pages and pages of deliberations. In that way, the narration itself questions what can be expressed, what can be said out loud. The literal minefield of the Troubles has become a minefield of conversation. But Iona and Aidan dare to walk across that field and prove that peace can be made.
A Tinge of Hope
As much as the story is about Iona and Aidan, the conflict between the two is also a familial and generational one. Aidan’s father was a member of the IRA and was imprisoned several times for acts of violence. Iona’s father, on the other hand, used to work in the police force during the Troubles but is now unable to work because of the PTSD he developed during that time. The trauma both parents experienced is inflicted on the next generation. Propelled by the imminent Brexit (the story is set in 2016), especially young people radicalise themselves in order to cope with a world that disrupts their country.
Discussions around a physical border between Northern Ireland and Ireland bring the conflict between the two fractions to a boiling point. The separation of the two countries becomes a matter of political power for the United Kingdom and a matter of hatred and violence for the Irish people. Again, Ireland sees itself helpless at the hands of its conqueror England.
In 1690 the Protestant King William ascended the throne, an event still celebrated by Protestants on the 11th Night. Irish flags and Nationalist paraphernalia are burned in huge bonfires as a patriarchal rite of passage for young men. Aidan reflects that »the attitudes hadn’t changed, just the tools. We fought with culture now, not guns.« Divin captures the conflicts tensioning in Northern Ireland as the days to the Brexit vote are counted down. Her story is a story of Nationalist violence, hatred and the consequences of a civil war that is laid by officially but not in the hearts of those who continue to fight and struggle. Ultimately, Aidan and Iona show strength beyond any expectations in trying to overcome their circumstances. The book cannot solve the fight but Aidan’s and Iona’s perseverance grants a tinge of hope, the hope that forgiveness and understanding are stronger than hatred and prejudices.