Saturday 3 December 2016

Dead as important as living in dreamlike tale that blends genres

Fiction: Himself, Jess Kidd, Canongate, hdbk, 359 pages, €16.99

Lorraine Courtney

Published 06/11/2016 | 02:30

Mind-melting twists: Author Jess Kidd
Mind-melting twists: Author Jess Kidd
Himself by Jess Kidd

When a nun from his childhood orphanage dies, 26-year-old Mahony is given an envelope. Inside is a photograph of a young girl, and on the back, someone has written: "Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co Mayo. This is a picture of yourself and her. For your information, she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you."

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So begins the story as we follow Mahony back to Mulderrig - "a benign speck of a place… pretending to be harmless", a west of Ireland town full of secrets and warring tribes, shadows and blood. It is spring 1976. Mahony had always assumed that his mom had just given him up, but now he needs to find out what happened to her.

Our protagonist is sized up by the locals and "despite the Dublin accent, despite the leathers, despite the orphan scowl, they'd judged him to be a grand fella entirely". He hits it off with local woman Mrs Cauley - an 80-year-old Mulderrig blow in - who lives in a lair of dusty books. They make an improbable pair but their odd-couple chemistry works.

Mrs Cauley takes Mahony under her wing and is determined to get the town talking about what happened to his mum, Orla. Meanwhile, parish priest Father Quinn is determined to purge the village of both Mahony and any memory of his scandalous mother.

The dead play as important a part as the living in the book. "For the dead are always close by in a life like Mahony's. The dead are drawn to the confused and the unwritten, the damaged and the fractured, to those with big cracks and gaps in their tales which the dead just yearn to fill." Other supernatural omens pop up, too: armies of spiders creep up walls and families of badgers trundle through the country roads.

It can't be an easy balance, but Kidd effortlessly blends different genres here that really shouldn't work together. At one point, Shauna, Mahony's love interest, says: "Oh God! Can't anything just be normal around here? Can't a storm just be a bloody storm?"

It seems that it can't in this whacky, magical-realist murder mystery. There are loads of laugh-out-loud moments in this book, but it is also dark, violent and, at times, genuinely creepy. After all, this is the story of a suppressed crime.

Kidd is also reaching back into our horrible history. Mahony remembers his heartbreaking childhood in the religious-run orphanage: "The soft nuns wear socks inside their sandals. They won't beat the shite out of you but if you make them cry, the hard nuns will beat the shite out of you for them."

The plot is engrossing, but sinuous and surprising, too. Mahony, Mrs Cauley, the puritanical and self-righteous Father Quinn and local man Tadhg, who plays best supporting male, are fantastic, Technicolor and loud, and so well drawn that their reality completely sucked me in. For the duration, I became a citizen of crazed Mulderrig, a participant in Kidd's gloriously bonkers world.

Kidd plays with words with a manic joy. The banter is well done. She has a knack for one-liners that can make you gasp, and an eye for life's weirdness that will forces you to look at the simplest things anew. Her well-timed bawdiness guards against any whimsy.

You get all this, plus a 4am mind-melt of a twist. This is a fireworks display of a debut novel, sometimes creepy, dreamlike and hilarious.

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