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The Butchers: A parallel farm plague from the 90s offers a timely tale of contagion

Fiction: The Butchers

Ruth Gilligan

Atlantic Books, 304 pages, hardback €16.99; Kindle £6.49

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Acerbic eye: Ruth Gilligan

Acerbic eye: Ruth Gilligan

The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan

The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan

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Acerbic eye: Ruth Gilligan

Before contagion, there was conjecture. A rumour, a whisper. The virus was someone else's problem, a plague visited on British farms. And then it was here. It was ours. Ruth Gilligan's new novel, The Butchers, is set primarily in 1996, yet the uncomfortable contemporary parallels are impossible to ignore (and, given how long publishing lead times can be, its recent publication is a chilling coincidence). In 1996 the virus was BSE - mad cow disease - which was contracted by cattle whose feed included infected brain tissue.

The Butchers opens in 2018, as internationally successful photographer Ronan Monks prepares to show a picture for the first time since he took it 22 years earlier, "when he was only a young eejit wandering the Irish borderlands with a second-hand Canon and a baggie full of pills".

The photograph is so vividly described that its presence pulses, glowing and constant, at the heart of the novel like a votive light underneath a sun-spotted Sacred Heart picture. It depicts a disused cold store, its plain and grubby tiled walls "riddled with cracks and greenish buds of mould". A man hangs from the ceiling, upside down, fully clothed. Holes in his feet take the weight of his body, "his shadow pooled black, his toenails curved white in 10 tiny crescent moons".