I’ve just finished reading We are Not in the World by Conor O’Callaghan and my head is full of it. It was intensive: I had to stop half-way through because it hurt my heart a little. I needed a pause to restore myself. It’s heartbreakingly sad and desolate and fierce and utterly convincing. I believed in each of the characters and in all the things they did and were capable of doing to each other. Every conversation, every scene, every recollection is distilled. The writing appears effortless. There’s a feeling that O’Callaghan has kept nothing back, that he’s given everything he had, in the time of writing it, to this book.
It’s the story of a journey: a physical one in that Paddy, recovering from the break-up of a painful affair, has opted to drive a lorry from England to France, partly in an effort to put heartache behind him, partly with the idea of visiting the place his late mother stayed as a young exchange student. Paddy’s haulier contact, Carl, is keeping tabs on him. Right from the beginning, there is something suspect about Carl’s dealings: an underhand business to do with the transfer of used daily tachographs; an unsavoury experience in an out-of-the-way forest clearing near a warehouse depot in central France. An air of menace hangs over the whole undertaking.
And Paddy is travelling with a stowaway: his vulnerable twenty-something daughter, concealed in the sleeping compartment of his cab. Paddy appears to be attempting to ferry her away from danger, shielding her from the cruelties of her peers and their weaponising of social media. There is a palpable fear that she will be discovered in his truck, that some harm will come to her or to Paddy at the hands of Carl and his fellow hauliers whom Paddy is trying to avoid, but whom he occasionally encounters in laybys, on hard shoulders, at roadside cafés and stops.
These men seem an undesirable bunch, constantly in transit, inhabiting the margins, potentially on the verge of violence. The banter between Paddy and his daughter is joyous, sparkling, but there is tension there too, the avoidance of talk about the time she had ‘her thing’; barbs from each of them directed at the other; his jealousy over her closeness to her uncle, his younger brother; the fallout caused by his affair. The road trip takes place over a handful of days and those chapters are interspersed with scenes from the remembered illicit relationship, a sort of checklist of emotionally — and erotically — charged trysts, narrated in the second person by Paddy’s ex-lover. The jigsaw pieces slot together, the jaggedly painful picture of loss and gain eventually emerges. This is stunningly beautiful writing.
‘This Train is For’ by Bernie McGill (No Alibis Press) is out now