This first novel from Paul Lynch startles with its language that is imbedded in landscape and nature, particularly in the terrain of County Donegal’s Inishowen. The plot is loosely based on the story of ‘Duffy’s Cut’, a stretch of railway in Philadelphia where 57 Northern Ireland immigrant workers died of cholera in the 1830s while employed by contractor Phillip Duffy. However, this historical episode provides but light scaffolding for this literary novel which, as the author himself has said, deals with ‘mythic history’ and the grand themes of landlordism, tenant hardship and forced emigration in nineteenth-century Ireland.
The book opens with the central character, the young Coll Coyle, ‘tight with rage’ at dawn as he watches ‘with dread the creeping birth of morning’ in the bed he shares with his wife and infant daughter. He is agitated from the recent visit of the landlord, Hamilton, and his foreman, John Fowler, with the news that the Coyle family are to be evicted. When the young tenant’s rage erupts in the murder of Hamilton, the chase is on as Fowler vows to track Coll down whatever it takes. This pursuit by Fowler – a man whose viciousness marks him out from those around him –provides the spine of the plot.
The novel is structured around three sections in very different locations. Part 1 takes place in Coll’s County Donegal homeland and the Inishowen land across which he flees with Faller on his trail. He makes his way to Derry and boards an emigrant ship to the United States, straining his eyes with a last look back towards his homeland. In Part 2 Coll is ‘between two worlds’ as he sails to America, the days indistinct from one another, the passengers wracked by sea sickness, hunger and disease. By Part 3 he has reached the new world, meets up with Duffy who offers work ‘laying the ground for a new kind of engineering’– a locomotive line. All the time, John Fowler relentlessly searches for Coll, having tracked him to the United States. Alongside the thriller style pursuit of his prey by Fowler, there is another device used to uncover the reason for Fowler’s bitter antagonism towards Coll. This is a series of short, first person reflections by Coll’s Donegal wife who has heard that Bridie Butler, an employee of the late landlord Hamilton in the big house, can provide answers. The solution to the riddle – perhaps not that convincing – comes at the very end of the story.
It is the language that makes this novel stand out from the pack: muscular, lyrical, arresting, steeped in the physical world. One suspects that the writer has himself spent days (and nights) abroad in the Donegal countryside, so lucidly does he convey the flight across bog, mountain, and water: ‘Pitted the bog was with silver pools of rain that spread like the markings of some beast that prowled its prehistory, the wetlands older than the footfall of man and indifferent to such wanderings.’ Paul Lynch has spoken of the literary influences of Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and poet Seamus Heaney, and his writing certainly exudes a poetic and sensory intensity. For this reader the novel calls to mind other Irish writers in its use of mythic landscape: short story writer Claire Keegan, and dramatists Marina Carr and Conor McPherson. Many scenes also evoke the wanderings of another literary character, this time across he bogs of Erris and the hills of Nephin, where Christy Mahon wandered in John Millington Synge’s drama The Playboy of the Western World.
For all of Paul Lynch’s inventiveness with language, this book develops and maintains its momentum through a succession of finely structured scenes, perhaps influenced by the writer’s work as a film critic. While the characters are larger than life, and sometimes not quite drawn out in sufficient detail, the overall work is taut in structure, and inventive in its prose. I look forward to Paul Lynch’s next literary offering.
London: Quercus, 2013, 229 pp ISBN: 978-1-78087-916-1
Patricia Byrne’s narrative nonfiction book The Veiled Woman of Achill was published by the Collins Press in 2012.