Monday, June 06, 2016

Nothing on Earth by Conor O'Callaghan

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 29 May 2016

If I were an idle billionaire I'd occupy myself by suing the blurb writers of Ireland under the trade descriptions law. There are serial offenders out there such as Colm Tóibín and Joseph O'Connor but this careless puffery has reached epidemic proportions amongst well-known writers in our incestuous literary world. Whatever happened to "truth is beauty"? The first line on the front cover of this book is a puff by Donal Ryan, Conor O'Callaghan's stable companion at Random House: "Strange, beautiful and quietly terrifying" it advises us. Now I don't claim to know Donal Ryan but if he finds this book terrifying he must have led a very sheltered life. If he finds it beautiful then truly beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And as for strange, I can only concur.

This is a first novel by O'Callaghan who is a poet and academic - creative writing is one of his areas of expertise. He has a few poetry collections under his belt and a contribution to that tedious debate about Roy Keane: "Red Mist: Roy Keane and the Irish World Cup Blues: A Fan's Story".

His book opens with a dire warning from Leviticus about the dangers of sex during menstruation. Now there is sex in the novel, and indeed menstruation, but the link between them and any subsequent dark consequences is extremely tenuous. (I should point out that this review is full of spoilers.) Perhaps we shouldn't be taking the quote too literally but unfortunately it prefigures the book as a whole which seems like a patch-work quilt of non sequiturs.

The action is divided between the interior monologue of a sexually shifty priest, who could be an unreliable narrator, and descriptions of the lives of four characters uneasily residing in a house on a ghost estate near a small town. The only character to come alive is the priest so there is a basic problem about caring too much about the ultimate fate of the four estate residents: a couple with an almost silent daughter and the wife's sister. The sister, Martina, seems ripe for diversion but this leads nowhere except for a few jousts with the night watchman. Apart from the two discreetly written sexual encounters most of the action seems desultory. There's a lot of sunbathing - that rarest of Irish activities. We don't get to know the characters so that as they disappear one by one we are benignly indifferent. There's no attempt to justify their disappearance with prior intimations - either from within or without. One moment they are part of the action, the next they are not. And the sun bathing continues. The disappeared are never discovered and we are offered no clue as to their fates. There are hints of dark doings: doors opening, taps flowing, mysterious writing and unexplained noises. We must use our imagination I suppose but we are never engaged enough to bother. The priest seems to be shifty but innocent of any wrong-doing. His interior life is occasionally given to sexual musings, suggesting he is imperfectly adjusted to a life of celibacy. However, his interactions with the Gardai seem unlikely and the dialogue has a false ring "You run off and process some parking tickets".

At times the author's attempts to suggest the mysterious is plain confusing. If I were teaching creative writing I would use page 21 as an example of gratuitous obfuscation:

"The girl's mother was not 'Helen', but Helen will have to do for now. She did have a real name. It was, once, a matter of public record. What was it her real name? Nobody seems sure any more. There were even moments, towards the end, when Helen wasn't entirely certain herself."

O'Callaghan can certainly write but I am not sure he can tell a story. There is a hole in the heart of his narrative. There are promising dabs of colour, a pub scene, a grisly (and gristly) dinner party, a feckless landlord, a subtle description of oral sex - but in general nothing much happens and then the characters disappear. And the priest sweats on.

Doubleday Ireland

Pages 175

RRP: €16.99

John P. O'Sullivan