Monday 19 February 2018

Books: Tale of misery on a farm in 1940s' Donegal

Fiction The Black Snow Paul Lynch Quercus, £12.99, hardback, 256 pages

Author Paul Lynch. Photo: Tony Gavin
Author Paul Lynch. Photo: Tony Gavin
The Black Snow by Paul Lynch

John Boland

Paul Lynch has some eminent admirers. "A signal masterpiece," Sebastian Barry declared of Lynch's first novel, Red Sky in Morning, "forged in his own new and wonderful language."

That quote appears on the jacket of his new novel, alongside Colm Tóibín's "I am savouring the book sentence by sentence" and Colum McCann's assurance that the 36-year-old author (pictured) "has a sensational gift for a sentence", though he neglects to mention which of the sentences he has in mind.

Probably all of them because, as Daniel Woodrell points out in a further blurb, Lynch's fiction is "written in language that demands attention". Indeed, in page after page of this latest novel, it so demands our attention that the narrative runs the risk of getting bogged down in what Tóibín approvingly deems the "sumptuous and poetic" manner of its telling.

Archaisms abound ("amidst", "amongst", "naught") and so, too, do odd usages ("smoke nestled catly", "the murmuration swung in unison", "the weather withdrawn into a nilness that was wan") along with numerous sentences in which the normal order of words is inverted. The upshot is that while some of these effects are strikingly evocative, too often they become an obstacle, the reader constantly being invited to admire the manner of the book rather than scrutinise its matter.

And, as with Red Sky in Morning, the matter – the storyline – is is sparse to the point of being skeletal. It's 1945 and we are on the remote Donegal farm of middle-aged returned emigrant Barnabas Kane, his American-born wife Eskra and their young son Billy as they try to eke out a living in this unforgiving corner of rural Ireland.

Within the first few pages, their byre burns down, killing a farmworker and 43 cattle. But this calamity is treated with resentment rather than sympathy by most of their neighbours, who never had much time for these returned Yanks and who blame them for the death of the farmworker, and the situation isn't helped by the dour, pugnacious Barnabas, who also becomes increasingly alienated from his long-suffering wife and from a son who's harbouring a dark secret of his own.

Almost from the beginning the reader gathers that there's going to be no happy outcome to this story, and long before the predictably bleak ending may reasonably wonder what drew the author to this miserabilist tale, why he chose to set it in the mid-1940s rather than any other era and what's to be gleaned from it.

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