Bobby Mahon is well-liked and respected. His wife loves him and more than a few of the local women fancy him. He’s capable, honest and decent. He’s also saddled with a monster of a father who is cold, abusive and, by half-way through the book, dead.
Bobby and his story are the hub of the book, around which all the other stories and voices revolve and, by my count, there are twenty-one narrators and chapters.
The book is set in post-boom rural Ireland. The great affluence of the Celtic Tiger has evaporated almost overnight. The international computer company has closed its doors and the local construction company — at which Bobby is a foreman — has gone broke and its crooked owner has left town. Bobby and his co-workers are left in the lurch, unable to draw unemployment insurance because Pokey Burke, their erstwhile employer, failed to pay into the insurance fund and seems to have paid no taxes either.
The book is not about a story though — not the dying economy or even the murder of Bobby’s father. Rather, it’s about a lot of stories. One event seen through multiple sets of eyes tells us about the speakers and how their places in the world change or remain the same. Characters are described by a narrator or several narrators, only to have their chance to tell their own story later. The book opens with Bobby’s voice: ”My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.” All the other voices in the book concur with Booby’s low opinion of his father, Frank … and then, close to the end of the book, we get the voice of the dead Frank and it’s powerfully moving. We see for the first time the old man’s abject loneliness, the huge damage done him, in his time, by a brutal father and his inability to break a way of being that he knows is destroying love all around him. That theme of father son relationship occurs with many characters and apart from the very final scene of the book, all those relationships are bad or going bad.
But there is much humour in this book and some wonderful characters. There’s the whore with a heart of gold, now aging badly and abandoned — yes, the hoariest of clichés — but she is a wonderful, generous soul and to be admired. There are a couple of totally incompetent Satanists manqués, a Siberian subbie i.e. day labourer, whose voice is one of the loveliest in the book. There’s the young guy who’s practically being seduced by a girl he fancies and still can’t summon the courage to meet her at a dance. “it’s there for me and I won’t take it” he observes.
As I was reading I kept thinking of Spoon River Anthology or the Irish Cré na Cille. All those many voices, criss-crossing, confirming, contradicting, illuminating — and I wondered about how they manage to sound so individual. The secret, I think, is in the attitudes of the characters. Any attempt to make voices that were hugely different linguistically would have been a disaster. Indeed, the simple fact that all the people involved are from the same very close society would have made it impossible. So, character comes first and language comes second. And while the language is a vibrant, occasionally profane and always colourful symphony, the author Donal Ryan doesn’t overdo it. You will notice different patterns of speech from speaker to speaker but it’s often very subtle and, just in case it all starts to sound just a bit bit too vernacularly Irish, he resorts to a very plain, matter-of-fact prose.
This Donal Ryan’s first book and it’s fully formed and masterful. I recommend it highly.