Book: Arrestingly odd gothic fantasy makes for very readable debut
Fiction: The Maker of Swans, Paraic O'Donnell, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hdbk, 336 pages, €19.50
Paraic O'Donnell's arrestingly odd first novel is a gothic fantasy that features a manservant, a mute young girl and a guardian who belongs to a sinister secret society. With its allegorical flourishes and ornate prose, it reads like Dan Brown rewritten by John Banville.
The author, who studied English and French at UCD and linguistics at Trinity and has travelled widely as a translator, is not shy about displaying his learning with frequent literary and philosophical allusions, but is more opaque when it comes to time, place and the ages of his characters.
"Shall I guess how old you are?" society vamp Arabella asks of gifted child Clara but then doesn't reveal her guess, while we're left to surmise that professorial Mr Crowe is elderly and that manservant Eustace is probably middle-aged.
The main setting, a palatial estate, could be anywhere, though references late in the novel to London and Oxford suggest the English countryside, while the period remains very uncertain - mention of Jaguar cars and jazz and the phenomenon of young women in universities hinting at the mid-20th century or before.
Certainly the language used by the adult characters is not of today.
"Eustace, you intolerable scourge!" Mr Crowe roars, later saying of Arabella, "I'm afraid the dessert wine has rather encumbered her abilities", while his evil nemesis Chastern declares "How I have missed the sweet salve of your wit".
The book is crammed with such stuff - such guff - and the plot is equally far-fetched, as Chastern and his creepy minder Nazaire seek retribution from Mr Crowe for violating a secret society covenant, though what such covenants entail is never made clear, nor is the nature of the recompense demanded of Mr Crowe.
In fact, the reader is asked to take an awful lot on trust. Mr Crowe is the possessor of mysterious gifts that remain mysterious, as do those of Clara, whose inability or refusal to speak isn't explained either, though she's clearly meant to be someone of profound mystical import. And the book's resolution, such as it is, left this reader baffled.
Yet if it amounts to little more than posh tosh, it's extraordinarily readable, and you're hooked from the outset as debauched old roue Mr Crowe dallies (the language is catching) with society floozy Arabella and shoots dead her unfortunate young admirer.
O'Donnell is very good both at scene-setting and evoking vivid characters and has a flair for dramatic incident - the kidnapping of young Clara by Chastern and his unsettling minion is almost cinematic in its impact, while the disembowelling of one of her bodyguards is all the more shocking for the almost oblique manner in which it's described.
Indeed, even though he overdoes the fancy locutions ("Arabella reclines languorously on the sofa" and then "rises languidly") and the antiquated usages (Crowe loftily telling Chastern "I have engineered more plausible coincidences while at stool"), there's no doubting the author's storytelling flair.
This flair, according to his publisher, has already been evident in "improvised Twitter short stories", which apparently have been "hugely popular" and brought him to the attention of several literary agents. And this debut novel shows he has also mastered most of the demands of longer fiction - even if one hopes that when he comes to write his next novel he'll have curbed his fondness for semi-mystical mumbo jumbo.