Maria C McCarthy Reviews ‘Petrol’ by Martina Evans




Imelda is caught in a thirteen-year-old’s world where sweets and a ‘vodka and Britvic’ are equally attractive, and nineteen-year-old farmer Danny Boy is both desirable and off-limits. The book begins with Imelda under the table at her mother’s funeral, sucking sugar from a spoon ‘shaped like a small spade’. The spade-shaped spoon is well placed – a device for digging a grave, perhaps – since Imelda believes that she is responsible for her mother’s death by wishing for it. However, the women in the ‘thick tan tights’, whom Imelda hears from beneath the table, are sure that her father Justin is blame for the death of his second wife; after twenty-nine miscarriages ‘He might as well have put the gun to her head’.

Imelda lives at a petrol station combined with a shop and bar in County Cork with her two sisters Bertha and Agnes, and her father, Justin (never referred to as father, though the dead mother is ‘Mammy’). Popular culture references give us clues to the 1970s’ setting, such as Aztec chocolate bars, maxi-dresses, The Exorcist, and the cheesecloth shirt that Imelda wears, which Justin describes as a ‘see-through blouse’. Justin is troubled by the possibility of premature sexual ruin of his three daughters. Meanwhile, he is wooing Clodagh, a younger woman, and potential third wife.

Petrol’s back-cover blurb describes the book as ‘a prose poem disguised as a novella’. This is indeed a difficult book to categorise. It looks like a novella, with numbered chapters, the characterisation is sharp, and there is a narrative running through. There is a richness in the prose, which lends itself to reading one or two chapters at a time, in the way that you might read poetry, rather than consuming the book at one sitting, and Petrol bears reading more than once, whereby deeper and different meanings can be gleaned, again as you might return to a book of poems. Martina Evans is best known as a poet, and there is much of the poet’s eye, use of language, metaphor and rhythm in Petrol. A group of ‘rat-filled cats’ have ‘eyes like stringed lights’; Ould  Farrell has ‘hands like a pair of coal tongs’; and ‘the roaring man had hair like someone had combed out a sod of turf’. The adjectives used in relation to Granddad, who owns seventeen cats, are magnificent: ‘Granddad was disgusted by the range’; ‘Grandad was glorified as we cut up corned beef and luncheon roll for the cats’.

Evans’s prose, in the voice of Imelda, does not draw breath. Sentences run over several lines, sometimes half-pages, yet not a word is wasted. Imelda is a bookish child, reading Anne Frank, and there is a subtle link between identifying with a trapped adolescent and Imelda describing herself as ‘the Jew’ of the family. She also reads Maupassant, as well as devouring the twenty-five Barbara Cartland books under her sister’s bed: ‘I lay down for the relief of reading them and thinking of Danny Boy even though I wasn’t supposed to’.  She lives in an atmosphere where sex and pleasure are hidden (well-masked in Cartland’s novels) and tinged with guilt. Much is learned by eavesdropping and spying. It is difficult to know whether Imelda is shocked and disappointed that Clodagh does not ‘stand up’ for her when she overhears Justin criticising her for ‘that weird fucking thing she has with the Jews’, or at seeing, from the hallway, ‘four of them in the dressing table mirror, two of him lying on top and two of Clodagh’. Afterwards, Justin says to Clodagh, ‘I am sorry, I am sorry’. Later, when Imelda goes into the hay barn with Danny Boy, he shows her the puppies she has supposedly come to see. He hides one in his shirt: ‘and Danny said that I had to take it out and he lay back laughing as if there was no such thing as guilt’. She feels that Justin is watching her ‘in disgust’ as she unbuttons Danny’s shirt.

Although there is movement in the narrative, there is a sense of things staying much the same, like the BP sign outside the petrol station, a recurring symbol, swinging on its pole, though, in the final sentence of the book, it ‘creaked and creaked like a horror in the wind’. Justin confronts Imelda about her liaison Danny Boy, as reported to him by Neily Sheehan, the owner of the rival JFK bar, who spied on them from his car as they walked hand-in-hand. In a reflection of the beginning of the book, when Imelda recalls wishing her mother dead, she now wishes the same for Justin: ‘I was entitled to set fire to him with his own petrol some day’. And the child at the beginning is now a young woman, having to explain to Danny Boy ‘why a nineteen-year-old might go to prison.’


Petrol by Martina Evans is published by Anvil, 2012, £8.95.  Order your copy here or here.

Reviewed by Maria C McCarthy


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *