Thursday 22 March 2018

Books: A homegrown star uses words for a powerful effect

The Maker of swans, Paraic O'Donnell, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €17.99

Swan maker: Paraic O'Donnell has made a bold and powerful debut.
Swan maker: Paraic O'Donnell has made a bold and powerful debut.

Hilary A White

Some things are better left unsaid. For Paraic O'Donnell, the Wicklow writer who garnered attention and plaudits for his canny improvised Twitter short stories, a novel's potency can be found in the things it omits rather than what goes in its shop window.

The Maker of Swans, his much anticipated debut, is that species of literary fiction that moves in elusive patterns not wholly in thrall to narrative strictures. Atmosphere is tantamount. Scenarios are arranged gorgeously like a lush interiors-magazine shoot or a Jack Vettriano painting. There are scant details about the era, but you read between the comely lines and it starts to feel like post-WWII.

All we can gather about the setting, meanwhile, is that it is a stately pile somewhere in England. Referred to as "the estate", the haven of parlours and libraries is surrounded by an Edenic micro-climate populated by the leafy and feathered. Real-life locations are mentioned but end up feeling as fantastical as the seam of the otherworldly that characterises every page. Paris is recalled as a place of "carriage rides and opera houses, of scandals whispered behind silk-gloved fingers, a world of sonatas and cigar smoke, of toothless princesses and jasmine-scented whores".

Things open with a bang, that of a discharged firearm at the scene of a front-lawn showdown between two quarrelling suitors. The victor is one Mr Crowe, a foppish, scotch-swirling raconteur who lives with a devil-may-care attitude to the world. An unspecified "gift" from his former days now sees Crowe live in splendid opulence but O'Donnell feels we needn't overly concern ourselves with this until much later on.

Living alongside Crowe in the demesne are Eustace and Clara. The former is a resourceful assistant, butler and handler. The latter is a young mute girl who in place of schooling spends all her time re-writing The Tempest, Madame Bovary and countless other memorised literary works or exploring the gardens. Eustace rummages, plans and frets while Clara floats through the grounds and hallways in a manner inhabited by some magical presence that is "water-dark and older than words".

Pressing factors are brought to bear on Crowe. His crime has got back to a shady ancient order he is linked to and soon its none-too-pleased leader, Dr Chastern, is rolling up the driveway for an ominous dinner appointment. He is accompanied by his lethal and ultra-polite henchman, Nazaire, and after some conspiratorial rumblings, Clara is kidnapped by the visitors. She emerges as a golden child whom all in the nebulous tale wish to either have domain over or fight to protect.

The second half ("A Whiteness" as opposed to part one's "A Lamentation") breezes forwards and backwards. We find out about Eustace's origins in a riverine vignette that could have come from the songbook of Nick Drake. A strong whiff of the Gothic continues to infuse the air, and the dialogue, overflowing with near Wildean pomp and stagey antiquarian ceremony throughout, suddenly succumbs to taut blasts of modern profanity.

Rarely does a writer stop you so fully in your tracks with just a simple arrangement of language. Drapes are beaten "until the sunlight is slow with dust". A marksman "knits his body around the path of sight". Words and their power to affect realities are a prevailing theme, both narratively and in O'Donnell's preference for "showing" rather than "telling".

When Crowe critiques Dickens for dilly-dallying ("Get things moving, that's all that matters, and do not trouble yourself with occasional creaking from the scenery"), this is O'Donnell making fun of his own habit of slowing things to a picturesque crawl. For all his formal brilliance, O'Donnell can laugh at himself too.

If the pace thus feels sluggish, it is likely by design. Some novels take you by the hand and place one foot in front of the other.

Others, like The Maker of Swans, skip along a moonlit garden path and taunt you into keeping up. When it reaches its final act, a diorama of pointed guns, flames and woodland chases, it maintains a slippery quality underfoot.

"Certain things may happen here whose nature is hidden from you," Eustace warns two lackeys early on. "You will see their effects but not the events themselves."

For this reason, the denouement will irk some readers with its flaky, light-headed tempos. It is how it is arrived at, however, that marks O'Donnell out as a bold new talent whose next moves should be closely watched.

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