Paul Lynch (Quercus, 2014); pbk. £8.99
As the burning of the byre dies down it is “[a]s if the black gates of hell have been cast open.” The byre belonged to Barnabas Kane, his wife Eskra and their teenage son Billy, in this powerful, sad and unrelentingly dark novel by Paul Lynch, author of the much lauded Red Sky in Morning. Their farmhand Mathew Peoples dies in the fire, along with all of their 43 cattle and the byre itself, ruining their livelihood. As the book unfolds we learn painfully that the fire has irrevocably changed the lives of the Kane family.
Set in Donegal in 1941, the Second World War is a far-off event, overshadowed by the ruinous happenings that shroud the family. Barnabas and Eskra are “local strangers”, Irish immigrants returned from America to make Ireland their home once more. Eskra:
cursed the poverty of the place. She cursed the obstinate notions that brought them here and she cursed the poverty of the place that had not changed in one hundred years it seemed to her, people living with next to nothing and happy to live as if the world had not changed… And that look they wore she saw was ingrained, the hard stare of suspicion, a look in the eye like some biblical judgement that summed you up as foreign and told you that unless you were born there you were considered none.
It is a cold damp Ireland where rain is always present or threatening and Barnabas struggles to ever get a hot cup of tea to warm him. We follow each member of the family as the story unfolds, each dealing with the disaster, its aftermath and causations, in their own way. The family love each other but in the wake of the disastrous fire, it is often a reticent love and we watch painfully as they struggle to climb back from disaster.
Lynch has a particular way of writing that can require some ‘tuning’ into but it gives his writing an immediacy and depth and, despite the dark story being told, an element of joy:
Eskra in the still of sleep and that soft light made porcelain, her arm ragged-thrown as if it were wood washed upon the shore of some dream.
You are carried along at a slow, steady pace, secrets being uncovered and events happening that surprise but at the same time seem inevitable. Billy, the teenage son has his own short passages in the novel and these provide additional suspension and, for this reader, an almost unbearable tension. This was a novel I wanted to read in one sitting but found that a rising feeling of dread would drive me to leave it alone for a while before I returned.
The book is also rich in the ways of country folk, their kindness, their suspicions, their taciturn humour and earthy cursing. The neighbours, Fran Glacken, The Masher, Peter McDaid and Goat McLaughlin, all brought back memories of my grandfather and his sister whom I would visit on her peat farm in Donegal, hard-working and stoical people with an earthy humour such as when Barnabas goes to visit neighbour Peter McDaid:
The door opened and lamplight made a sight of McDaid in yellowing long-johns with his fly wide open and his cock on show. His feet planted in wellies. Barnabas nodded towards the man’s crotch. Jesus Christ, Peter. The electric eel is making a run for the river.
Despite the sadness and the harshness of the lives and story being told, the book is lifted by the sometimes wonderfully descriptive writing and the earthy humour of the characters and the grim fascination of an involving story. It is a book which stays with you and although it may not be a book to take to the beach, it is one to savour on dark cold winter days.