Friday 23 August 2019

Nobber: A chaotic belly laugh at medieval misfortune

Fiction: Nobber Oisín Fagan

JM Originals, paperback, 304 pages, €17.99

Mischievous work: Oisín Fagan
Mischievous work: Oisín Fagan
Nobber by Oisín Fagan

Hilary A White

Pestilence, the Black Death and comedy combine to bemusing and occasionally potent effect in this debut novel proper from the rising star of Oisín Fagan.

The 28-year-old, who came to our attention in 2016 with his five-strong collection of short stories, Hostages, sets his maggot-eaten saga in 1348, 24 years after the witch trials of Niamh Boyce's recent Her Kind. But Fagan's medieval Ireland is a dimension removed from that of Boyce's, and makes the latter seem almost sanitised by comparison.

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The titular - and titter-causing - village in Fagan's native Co Meath is the scene for a tale that is striking for its continually undulating tones. A foul-smelling splash of morbidity and body horror here. A chaotic belly laugh at someone's misfortune there. An all-too-rare and vulnerable shard of heartfelt connection when the blood has dried.

What remains constant throughout is a knock-kneed quality as plague and famine whittles away at the inhabitants of Nobber and the surrounding countryside. Wild nature is abundant while man's health is subsiding towards his end of days, a knowing flip by the author on today's world.

Those who live in the village have been placed under a form of communal house arrest by a recent interloper who claims to act under learned wisdom and divine guidance. Everything is being viewed through a blur as ill health and insanity eat away at those townsfolk that have yet to die.

Riding towards the village are a small rabble comprised of an Anglo-Norman noble going by the name of Osprey de Flunkl and three of his long-suffering serfs. De Flunkl has been using the plague to profiteer by scamming ravaged communities into signing over deeds to property, a sort of self-contained and predatory medieval vulture fund as our author sees it.

There are dark signposts along the way that cause unease among the quartet, and as they draw nearer to Nobber and pass a wood-chopping hermit woman and dozens of half-dead crows nailed to a post, a sense of rising foreboding brews, even if not all the characters are willing to admit it. The town itself will be the setting for a showdown of some sort, a last-chance saloon that adds to this novel's Western-ish disposition.

In the town itself, dead families are piled in corners, horses are opened and drawn in the main street and the townsfolk remain boarded into their homes as part of the curfew, hoping any supplies of cider will numb them to the impending collapse of life. We go from room to room, hovel to hovel, where domestic scenes play out and sickly incarcerated characters act as ciphers for wider ills of abuse, barbarity and regret.

The infected laugh out of rotting, jaundiced faces, a nightmarish juxtaposition that places you in a world low on real compassion. Those characters that do harbour ideals of heroism or moral high ground don't win out.

Among the townsfolk is a beautiful Gael who has been traded into indentured servitude. Her kinsmen are a continuous presence throughout the story, depicted as a wild and dangerous people who, if you are unlucky enough to encounter, will unleash bags of rats and murderous intent at you.

The Gaels don't seem to be governed by the same laws of society or indeed nature, and, looming as large as they do in the background, represent a strain of mankind that threatens to usurp this incumbent order. They may have just found their opportunity to do so among all this sickness.

Nobber is a lively and mischievous work that does a wonderful job of painting pictures for us of abject horror and suffering right before turning them over on to their backs to reveal soft comedic underbellies. It trades heavily on this cartoonish element throughout while putting humans and animals through the wringer, with Fagan wielding the plague to symbolise control, prejudice and choleric inhumanity to your neighbour and countryman.

Gender politics is another particularly obvious signpost to times present. Women lament their horrid sons and curse their own beauty for the violence it has brought upon their lives, while men laugh aloud in amazement at the idea of matriarchal power.

As things come to a head between the community and the interlopers, there remains a vague feeling of the pay-off in Nobber not being proportionate to the gruelling passages of death and mutilation we have endured thus far. It is almost as if nothing ultimately matters a huge amount in this historic dystopia where the moral journeys of its characters are concerned because things are in free-fall.

While this is all very entertaining under the watch of a writer as gifted as Fagan, it does somehow dull the sharpness of the novel's blade as we come to its final pages.

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