The Paper Man by Billy O’ Callaghan

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The Paper Man by Billy O’ Callaghan

By Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

The Paper Man by Billy O’ Callaghan is published with Jonathan Cape (Penguin) and is based on true events. It is described as ‘the story of twentieth-century Europe and love against the odds. It is a story that will take Jack far from Cork and all the way back to Vienna, and towards The Paper Man.’

In July 2022 I wrote in my review of Life Sentences that Billy O’ Callaghan was a master storyteller and, after reading The Paper Man, I can quite honestly say the same thing again. Reading the words of Billy O’ Callaghan always transports the reader into the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. Set across two timelines, 1930s Vienna and 1980s Cork, it was as though I was reading a memoir. And in many ways I was, albeit mixed with fiction, as Billy O’ Callaghan gives us a brief insight into the life of world-renowned Austrian footballer Matthias Sindelar.

Sindelar, known as The Paper Man, played in the famous match between Germany and Austria in April, 1938 to mark the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany. Following the match, the Austrian team would be no more, absorbed into the German national football team. For players like Sindelar, it is unclear how they privately felt about this but, from the history books, it can be assumed he wasn’t a fan, displaying his discontent by kicking the ball into the back of the net and dancing at the end of the game. Sindelar was found dead in his apartment in 1939 under a cloud of suspicion. With The Paper Man, Billy O’ Callaghan creates a dramatic and breath-taking sidebar to Sindelar’s story, through his imagined love affair with a young Jewish girl, Rebekah Schein.

1980s Cork and Jack Shine is going through his mother’s belongings. Growing up in Jewtown, which was once home to a successful and vibrant Jewish community in the city, Jack has always felt welcomed and loved. His mother Rebekah had escaped Vienna as a refugee and Cork was where he was born. As Jack sorts through her stuff, he discovers a box containing ‘mementoes and love letters from another time, with newspaper snippets ‘four badly yellowed newspaper clippings, a pair of faded hand-sized photographs, and a sheaf of letters.’ Jack has never known who his father was but, on looking at the photographs, he begins to wonder. Rebekah died of TB when Jack was ten so he never really knew his mother but now, with this box, Jack might finally discover his true beginnings

‘The letters. God. At forty-one, he’d long since accepted his lot, the missing pieces just a fact of life. Growing up, most of the boys he knew had fathers, but there was scarcely a family in Jewtown spared the damage of the war, at least on some level, kin – extended if not immediate – lost to its brutalities, and in the face of such senseless horror, and the sheer immensity of its magnitude, enquiry seemed futile’

As Jack explores what the contents of this box mean, the reader is transported back to pre-war Austria and into the life of a young girl whose world was about to change. With the beautifully expressive pen of Billy O’ Callaghan we imagine life in Vienna and the surrounding towns at that time. As Hitler’s power strengthens, the fear is tangible, as the lives of many are on the brink of unknown devastation and barbaric cruelty.

The passion between this, on paper, unlikely couple is beautifully depicted. With a large age difference and seemingly opposing lifestyles, Matthias and Rebekah’s relationship was unexpected. But the attraction was unstoppable and their lives soon became intertwined, with Rebekah deciding ‘for certain that whatever this was, whether love or something other, it was all there would ever be for her, and all she needed.’

Up to this point Jack had been relatively settled, working as a stevedore on the Cork docks but now, ‘all of a sudden, peace is lost, and the cacophony of questions has him muddled.’

The Paper Man by Billy O’ CallaghanBilly O’ Callaghan is an exquisite writer. His ability to convey a place and time is cinematic in its descriptions, transporting the reader to wherever a scene is set. Walking the streets of 1930s Vienna in all its opulence or joining Jack on his very early walks on a bleak morning down The Marina in Cork in the 1980s, is a truly immersive experience. The Paper Man is a beautiful story beautifully told. Billy O’ Callaghan has yet again created a piece of work that engages the reader, weaving in and out across history and through the generations, bringing to life a gorgeous cast of characters with a melancholy yet hopeful tale. Although at times devastating, The Paper Man is an astute and imaginative piece of writing, another glorious novel from this outstanding writer.

(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

Order your copy online here.

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