Before contagion, there was conjecture. A rumour, a whisper. The virus was someone else's problem, a plague visited on British farms. And then it was here. It was ours. Ruth Gilligan's new novel, The Butchers, is set primarily in 1996, yet the uncomfortable contemporary parallels are impossible to ignore (and, given how long publishing lead times can be, its recent publication is a chilling coincidence). In 1996 the virus was BSE - mad cow disease - which was contracted by cattle whose feed included infected brain tissue.
The Butchers opens in 2018, as internationally successful photographer Ronan Monks prepares to show a picture for the first time since he took it 22 years earlier, "when he was only a young eejit wandering the Irish borderlands with a second-hand Canon and a baggie full of pills".
The photograph is so vividly described that its presence pulses, glowing and constant, at the heart of the novel like a votive light underneath a sun-spotted Sacred Heart picture. It depicts a disused cold store, its plain and grubby tiled walls "riddled with cracks and greenish buds of mould". A man hangs from the ceiling, upside down, fully clothed. Holes in his feet take the weight of his body, "his shadow pooled black, his toenails curved white in 10 tiny crescent moons".
The man is one of 'the Butchers', a group of eight cattle slaughterers who were still practising their ancient semi-folkloric rituals in Ireland as the BSE crisis unfolded. The facts of his death become just one element of the story, which focuses on two families and their different connections to the Butchers: Cúch, his lonely wife Grá, and their secretive, worried daughter Úna, who is tormented at school because of her father's occupation; and small-time farmer Fionn, his dying wife Eileen, and their son Davey.
Fionn and Davey live on parallel tracks. All they have in common is their love for Eileen and their inability to understand each other (that Gilligan's characters pleasingly don't always see what's obvious to the reader reminded me of the English slang 'have a butcher's', meaning, 'look at'). Davey falls for the youngest of the Butchers, his shy joy in the man's company "a gormless, graceless thing."
Ireland in 1996 was a country casting off old ways and ancient traditions, as the general local suspicion of the Butchers' ritualistic methods shows.
While the Belfast Agreement was still two years away, it was the era of a new Divorce Bill and the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality. Of the Spice Girls, the Euros, and the introduction of free third-level education. Gilligan's keen and acerbic eye for detail picks up on events and attitudes, measuring out scorn and sympathy in well-crafted asides: a new restaurant is "a glammed-up thing fashioned awkwardly out of the ribs of a pub", and the arrival of the first McDonald's in the county a cause for excitement and celebration.
Her characters are insular people in gossipy, pass-remarkable communities - though towards the end of the novel, Fionn seems to successfully withhold a particular piece of information back from his son which I can't imagine he would get away with for long in any small town.
Gilligan's 2016 book Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan was an intricate historical novel documenting the Irish-Jewish community, its three strands spanning a century. The Butchers could not be more different in subject matter yet treats its material with similar confidence and flair.
And, for anyone thinking that the significance of the BSE crisis is long since forgotten, a reminder from farmer's wife Eileen: "'In this country, love, cattle are politics.'"