Inventory is a book of hard-won truths, a detailed map of a journey out of the labyrinth, the maze of memories, anecdotes, evasions and secrets that families construct in an attempt to protect themselves and those who come after them. It is also, inevitably, but not exclusively, a book about the Troubles, a time when, to paraphrase Joan Didion, people told themselves stories in order to survive. After a time, those stories, endlessly repeated, became a form of myth-making or denial. Or both. The real stories – painful, exposing – were often shrouded in silence.
In often radical ways, this is a book about breaking that silence, transgressing what Seamus Heaney called “the tight gag of place” – but also of family. A book of revelations, then, both large and small, its truths reverberate in the imagination long after you finish reading it.
Anderson’s memories and those of his family are vividly rendered. He describes, for example, sitting close to the fireplace in his childhood home and noticing that a burning newspaper retains the type until the last moment. Reading this I suddenly remembered it too. Inventory may in fact be above all an exercise in memory – gathering, questioning, verifying, and identifying the voids. Even when the subjects are difficult to catch, the hunt is always vital and compelling.
A conscious element of deliberate and fundamental uncertainty lies at the heart of this book. It is fractured and fragile, declining to invest excessively in any notion of a truth or a series of truths when stories are refracted through any number of minds and memories. It is charged too with awareness that in Northern Ireland in general and Derry in particular, it would be a burlesque, an affront to the senses, to embrace received wisdom, or trust official or authoritative news or histories. Instead, a necessary scepticism is the default – and the strength of Inventory lies in its willingness to draw attention to this fact, almost to glory in it, to undermine any notion of authority even in the tales printed on its pages.
Inventory tells how he grew up in Derry and grew away from it, moving first to Belfast, where walking in places unwelcoming to Catholics made him realise that the city “put the psycho in psychogeography”, and then out of the North altogether. It’s a pilgrim’s progress for a sensitive young man in a place unsuited to such a temperament, told in a scattered way in short chapters, each themed – hence the title – by a childhood object: floppy disk, cassette, toy soldier. This iconographic form is apt to describe a place where symbols such as flags hold such sway, and gives a loose structure in keeping with Northern Ireland’s essentially provisional status.