Sunday 18 March 2018

Review: Fiction: Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter

New Island, €11.99, pbk, 193 pages
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Artists crossing into other fields isn't always a good idea; witness all those terrible movies by rappers and albums from film stars.

Interestingly, though, musicians -- especially singer-songwriters -- often make a decent fist of novel-writing. Nick Cave's And The Ass Saw the Angel was interesting; Willy Vlautin's Lean on Pete has been nominated for the Impac, and there are others.

Well established folkie Josh Ritter now presents his debut novel (published Stateside last year to warm applause, reissued here by New Island).

While closer in quality to Vlautin's books than Eminem's acting, Bright's Passage isn't quite there as a great novel: it signposts a potentially significant talent, but as Stephen King said in review, "Ritter has not ... fully unwrapped it".

It's the story of Henry Bright, a young man beset by bad luck. He endured a penurious childhood and the horrors of the Great War, saw his bride die in childbirth, and inadvertently started a forest fire which threatened to consume him and his baby boy.

But while he has a devil of misfortune on one shoulder, Henry has an angel on the other.

At least, he thinks he does. In a sort of magic-realist twist, a "voice" gives the hero advice at crucial times in his life, generally to good effect, though not always. The angel also thinks Henry's son is a future replacement for Jesus. Meanwhile, his nutcase father-in-law and idiot brothers-in-law are in hot pursuit.

Ritter is promoting Bright's Passage in Ireland -- he's just appeared at Dublin Writers' Week. The Idaho native's connections here are deep and genuine, and the book should appeal to a certain yearning for romanticism in our collective heart; the same, indeed, which makes singer-songwriters so popular.

His novel isn't without flaws, however. The story is sparse enough, scarcely believable sometimes, and the dialogue felt somehow flat -- ironically, considering its creator, it lacks something of the musicality and rhythm of actual speech.

On the upside, the descriptions are often lovely, with an unfussy lyricism perfectly complementing the material: "They entered the War like men stepping out from beneath an awning into a torrential thunderstorm"; "His eyes were flat and spoon-coloured, set within an angular face that seemed carved out of a large block of salt."

Bright's Passage is pretty good, though you can't help wondering: would this have been published by an unknown writer, who didn't already have some artistic currency? I'm not sure.

New Island commissioning editor Eoin Purcell said of Bright's Passage: "I instantly fell in love with this brilliantly quirky tale and the lyrical quality to Josh's writing."

It didn't grab me quite that much. But it's a good tale, told in an understated yet elegant style, and Ritter has definite promise in this new field.

Darragh McManus' crime novel Even Flow is now available to pre-order on Amazon.

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