Sunday 25 February 2018

Ghost-estate family's disappearing act leaves far too much to the imagination

Fiction: Nothing on Earth, Conor O'Callaghan, Doubleday Ireland, pbk, 176 pages, €16.99

Conor O'Callaghan: his prose leaves the reader confused.
Conor O'Callaghan: his prose leaves the reader confused.
Nothing On Earth

This first novel by poet Conor O'Callaghan tells the haunting story of a displaced family who live in a ghost estate, and then vanish from it as if they never existed. And perhaps they never did, the author's telling of the tale is so elliptical that the reader is never quite sure who these people are or how they've ended up on the outskirts of a godforsaken town in the dog days of recession-hit Ireland - though the precise setting and the timeline are never made clear.

Nor is the background of the family in question: a 30-year-old mother and her husband, her twin sister and a 12-year-old daughter. Are they recently returned Irish from England? Or are they immigrants from central or eastern Europe, as occasional references tend to suggest?

Even their names remain unclear. The waif-like 12-year-old, whose sudden appearance at the narrator's door sets the story in motion, tells him that she's called Helen, adding, "It is my Mutti's name", yet a few pages later we're informed that "the girl's mother was not 'Helen' but Helen will have to do for now." And she remains Helen throughout the rest of the book.

What's going on here? The withholding of information is a common, and often very effective, narrative device, but there's a world of difference between such authorial discretion and the creation of bemusement, and readers of this novel may well feel baffled at what appears to be a wilful refusal to provide basic information.

And clarity isn't helped by the fact that the "I" who narrates events in the brief opening chapter then vanishes and doesn't reappear until nearly two-thirds of the way through. So who's telling the story in the intervening 100 pages? And is this third-person narrative meant to be any more reliable than the seemingly untrustworthy "I" who begins and ends the novel?

Gradually, the reader begins to piece some things together about the lives of the characters, even if crucial facts remain teasingly, indeed annoyingly, out of reach. We learn that Paul and Helen (or whoever she is) and their daughter are living in the empty show house of this ghost estate and that Paul and sister-in-law Martina have been employed at a local software plant.

We learn, too, of Paul's "college peers" and of "wine-bar Christmas bashes" in the past, which seem to suggest a middle-class lifestyle that's entirely at odds with the family's current down-at-heel predicament, but that's as much as we're told.

So what's the story? We never really find out and after a while we may cease to care - the four family members are so wispily drawn that they never amount to more than ghostly presences, so that when they vanish from the narrative one by one, we barely register their absence.

That leaves us with the dodgy narrator, though we're three-quarters of the way through the book before we learn that he's a priest and that he's been banished from the parish after a garda investigation into the girl's disappearance.

Why the delay in revealing his religious identity? It's not as if it adds to narrative tension.

Indeed, while the author's poetic eye is evident throughout in his evocations of place and of mood, a novel also has to grapple with characters and with story, and there's little of either here.

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