Thursday 19 October 2017

A transfixing energy and notes of McCarthy in grim Famine odyssey

Fiction: Grace Paul Lynch, Oneworld, €15.99

Grace by Paul Lynch
Grace by Paul Lynch

Hilary A White

For an author who has become no stranger to acclaim and, indeed, sales during his short publishing career, we don't hear too much fuss about Paul Lynch here in his homeland. The Donegal author has made a name for himself overseas, especially in France, on the back of two novels of lavish prose-poetry, Red Sky In Morning (2013) and The Black Snow (2014).

Overseas, the former Sunday Tribune critic has been name-checked somewhere between Seamus Heaney and Cormac McCarthy. At home, he'd struggle to get arrested. Lynch's bio image on the inside sleeve is even veiled in shadow as if the intention is to keep it that way. While this is a situation many of his peers would probably kill for, Grace may upset that slightly because it could prove hard to ignore.

While the Heaney side of things is less apparent, there is a strong smack of McCarthy in Grace's tale of a perilous but cathartic road trip through a desolate world.

We hit the ground running to find the titular 14-year-old being dragged outside the door of her Donegal family hovel by her mother. She unceremoniously shears Grace's hair so that she may pass as a boy out there, where to be a boy is marginally easier. It's 1845 - the Great Famine is just about to strangle the western seaboard of Ireland. Grace is pushed from the dingy nest by her mother to seek out a better lot in what is the ultimate act of tough love.

Her brother Colly tags along, both in body and, later on, in spirit. He gives voice inside her mind to everything from suspicion and gut feeling to nicotine addiction, and provides welcome jolts of comic relief when Grace's road can seem devoid of light, which is often.

Everything is unashamedly drenched in atmospherics as if Lynch were reciting the tale by fireside to children on a Halloween night. For the most part, it is tremendous fun to sit in as he does so, rendering 19th-Century Ireland as somewhere spectacular in its grimness.

Far from the statistical, sclerotic picture of the Famine we are raised with here, Lynch's depiction is a nightmarish zombie apocalypse where ghost women ask if you've seen their lost baby and fellow travellers walk the same road alongside you while simultaneously circling over your head as well.

And then there are those with their "faces eaten in" who "stood with that dead-staring of donkeys" and many other Guernica-esque flashes of nature writhing and being subverted. Lynch is frighteningly skilled at such times, searing images into the mind and forcing you to press carefully through sentences as if they are strips of long grass. He incorporates Gaelic syntax into lines to give them a foreboding sense of ancient mystique and threads mentions of supernatural pookas into Grace's world along with other lost Irish terms. The connection to the land is unmistakable even if this an ultra-gothic vision of Ireland.

Elsewhere, Lynch can seem to be trying a little too hard. One habit that tires quickly is his device of using adjectives as nouns (a goose is heard "rupturing the air with shrill"). Inanimate objects, trees and such, are repeatedly "whispering" ominously while the pathetic fallacy carried in every rain cloud and silent dog is occasionally overwrought. Ultimately, however, these glitches can't quell the sheer transfixing energy at work here.

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