Friday 20 September 2019

Kidd triumphs again with a fantasy caper of madness and murder

Fiction: The Hoarder, Jess Kidd, Canongate, €20.99

The Hoarder by Jess Kidd
The Hoarder by Jess Kidd

Anne Cunningham

London-Irish Maud Drennan, a home help for the elderly, is assigned the prickly Irishman Cathal Flood as her latest client. Cathal lives in a shambolic wreck of a Victorian Grade II-listed mansion which is hidden from the street behind gigantic, unkempt Leylandii. Flood is an ancient, foul-mouthed, abusive rascal with a serious hoarding problem. Nothing's been thrown out since his wife died (in mysterious circumstances) in the 1990s. Except, that is, for all of Maud's predecessors.

Maud's duties are to clear out as much rubbish as possible and to cook for Flood, while ignoring his rants and insults. The clearing out of a hoarder's house is difficult to navigate, as is amply illustrated by dozens of reality TV programmes. But Cathal Flood's malevolent pile, along with his own malevolence, makes this a project of "biblical" magnitude, leaving Maud overwhelmed. Maud also happens to be a very reluctant medium. She sees the spirits of the dead everywhere, most especially those of Catholic saints, and in particular the patron saints of love, of mental illness, of lost things and whatever you're having yourself. Some of the funniest lines in the book are attributed to these brilliantly-imagined, but not particularly holy celestial creatures, with St Valentine often hogging the limelight. Among other things, this wondrous novel is a pitch-perfect howl.

When Maud comes upon an old photograph of Cathal's son Gabriel as a child, holding the hand of a little girl, things take a turn for the worst. The little girl's face has been burnt out of the picture with a cigarette. And when Maud broaches the subject with Flood, she is stonewalled. But since she has no idea of who the girl could be, she decides to play amateur sleuth. Her landlady Renata, a transgender agoraphobic addicted to daytime TV and cheap crime novels, eggs her on. Spending their evenings gathering information on the little girl and drinking copious amounts of Renata's bathtub gin, Maud and Renata conclude that Flood must have a hand in the child's disappearance. But things are not at all as they seem.

Flood's son Gabriel, now an adult who lectures in musical theatre, is a particularly slippery foot-fiddler and much loathed by his father. Then there's Maud's immediate predecessor Sam Hebden. Why does he keep popping up each time Maud uncovers another ugly secret? Should she heed the chattering saints who warn her not to trust Hebden? And can Maud even trust herself? As the plot develops, the reader learns of the skeletons in Maud's own cupboard and of why she can't seem to forgive herself.

This novel is a delight. As mercurial as it is bawl-out-loud funny, it defies categorization. It's a Gothic ghost story, a kind of murder mystery, a bawdy comedy and a fantasy caper. It will defiantly rattle the bars of any pigeonhole. But Kidd also writes with compassion for the elderly clients of only-for-profit home help agencies. Having worked in this area, Kidd has much to say. Her having Irish roots help too, with the banter between Flood and Maud generously sprinkled with the "blas". Her first novel, Himself, won widespread critical acclaim. This, her second novel, establishes Kidd as a literary force to be reckoned with.

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