Saturday 19 January 2019

Involving elegy to rural Ireland feels half-formed

Memoir: The Cow Book, John Connell, Granta, hardback, 288 pages, €19.60

Author John Connell at the family farm in Ballinalee, Co Longford. Photo: Damien Eagers
Author John Connell at the family farm in Ballinalee, Co Longford. Photo: Damien Eagers
The Cow Book by John Connell
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The Cow Book follows six months in the life of a young Irishman, as he works on his family farm and tries to reinvigorate his writing. John Connell has returned from several years abroad, intending to craft a novel and paying his way by helping out on the farm near Ballinalee in Co Longford.

Subtitled 'A Story of Life on an Irish Family Farm', we trace developments both agricultural and personal, as the seasons turn, weather changes, new life arrives and fresh challenges arise. As a memoir, it's reasonably involving and at times affecting. As a history of farming, it's often interesting.

As a work of literature, though, The Cow Book didn't work for me at all. It's mostly a question of writing style and standard: the former felt ersatz and was sometimes annoying, the latter felt underdeveloped.

The cover is papered with ecstatic testimonials from the usual suspects. They're entitled to their opinion, but "gorgeous", "beautiful", "full of warmth, truth and tentative wonder"? I didn't see it, I'm afraid.

In the interests of fairness, we'll focus on the good stuff first. A former film producer and investigative journalist in Australia, Connell peppers the book with thought-provoking essays on the history of agriculture and domestications of animals.

All modern cows, we learn, are descended form a single herd of Auroch - gigantic wild oxen which lived in present-day Iran over 10,000 years ago. Jews, Hindus and Egyptians worshipped cows. We learn about farm animals in Greek mythology - the most famous being the murderous Minotaur - and Queen Medb's cattle raids in the Táin, which Connell nicely ties into gangster raids on farms in modern Ireland.

He also captures the experience of farm life well: the sounds, smells, cold mornings, what things feel like - the whole gloriously tactile mess of it. We read about how his parents, all farmers, named their fields and animal charges.

The Connells keep cows, sheep and horses, and John recounts tales of dehorning calves, cutting tails and hair, John Deere tractors and damp silage; and in the book's best sections, the bloody, exhilarating battles with calving cows.

He amusingly checks Facebook every dawn, messaging his girlfriend on the other side of the world. He takes up running. Wild dogs worry the sheep (and family). The sound of Angelus bells occasions a mood of meditative reflection. There's a family history of fighting in the old IRA.

Animals are lost and lives are saved. The author reflects on the artificial horrors of factory farming, especially in pigs. His uneasy relationship with his father comes to an argumentative head.

The Cow Book has a fair bit to - pardon the pun - sink your teeth into. But it's fatally hobbled by the writing, which is affected, stilted, often clichéd… and, ultimately, doesn't ring true. The language doesn't feel especially authentic to Ireland, but rather, the kind of thing UK or American readers might think Irish people would say.

He uses archaisms such as "shall", "lest" and, especially, "for" (in its sense as an equivalent of "because"). Indeed, "for" appears several times on every page; it looks weird and jarring in descriptions of modern life, coming from a young man. Similarly, do they really use the term "meitheal" in 2018 Longford?

The Cow Book is being sold as a lyrical, profound elegy to rural Ireland, but it's neither of those adjectives.

Indeed the book at times feels unfinished and half formed. Connell may well have a brilliant finished piece in him, but this reads more like an early draft.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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