The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan
But, at the end of the twentieth century, and with the rise of the Celtic Tiger, fewer and fewer ascribe to the traditional ways. England’s BSE crisis is commonly viewed not as support for the butcher folklore but as an opportunity to commandeer a lucrative corner of the beef market, as well as for some cross-border deals.
Fionn, a dairy farmer with a serious anger management problem, especially when he’s on the drink, is more than willing to revive his smuggling skills. His wife is dying and he needs the money for a miracle cure. His son, Davey, in his final year of school before university, is more interested in Greek and Roman myths than those of his homeland but, having ditched his girlfriend, discovers his sexuality in the arms of the youngest of the eight butchers.
Úna is drawn to the butchers in a different way: she wants to follow her father’s footsteps and become one herself. Unfortunately tradition has reserved his path for men. Meanwhile, her mother, despite her commitment to being a good butcher’s wife, develops an intimate friendship with a photographer in search of the shot that will make his name.
These four threads of characters adapting to major change in their personal lives while their country is about to catapult into the modern world are wrapped up in a mystery involving a disturbing photograph of a man hanging by his feet from a meat hook while the Virgin Mary looks on from the wall. Narrated with compassion in beautiful prose, The Butchers is a contender for one of my books of the year. Thanks to Atlantic books for my advance proof copy.
For a very different novel about the meat industry, see Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica.
 See A New Sublime
 As does Fanny in The Slaughterman’s Daughter, albeit from a different cultural tradition
Hashim & Family by Shahnaz Ahsan
The novel’s also about Hashim, of course, a man with a quiet dignity who works long hours in a corner shop. But it’s his cousin, Rofikul, who brought him to England, a man who constantly reinvents himself, from factory worker, garage manager to newspaper editor to reporter, who discovers the pleasures of fatherhood relatively late in life.
It’s a story of the experience of immigration to England from the Indian subcontinent, with the typical mix of hard work, acceptance and racism, of both bloody and casual kinds. As in the novel, I remember (and came uncomfortably close to) the married men with their white girlfriends addressing them by Anglicised versions of their names.
I was drawn to this novel by the promise of a thread about the struggle for Bangladeshi independence; unfortunately, a promise I felt to be unfulfilled. Sure, there are scenes set in Bangladesh, and the gruelling facts of the war are delivered, but the novel’s heart is in the UK. Despite being within the novel’s timeframe, neither the 1970 cyclone, which I learnt about in Gun Island, nor the 1974 famine get a mention, so I’m still waiting to find the perfect novel about Bangladesh!
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know how important language is to the Bangladeshi identity – if you haven’t/don’t, the remedial class is here in a review/memoir post: The Book of Dhaka. Shahnaz Ahsan does refer to the language martyrs, but doesn’t pick up on whether Syhleti, the mother tongue of most UK migrants from Bangladesh, is simply a dialect of Bangla or a language in itself. I concede that I might be the only reader of this novel who cares!
But, silver linings alert! The fictional expatriates newspaper featured in the novel is called Ekushey; a fine excuse for me to share once again my favourite Mother Language Day song. Thanks to publishers John Murray for my advance proof copy.