In perhaps the first of the great famine novels, The Black Prophet of 1846 by William Carleton, a character notices the sheer difficulty of grasping the “inconceivable reality” of famine. Is it this inability to conceive of such a cataclysm that has retained the pen of writers for so long?
Twenty years ago, Terry Eagleton lamented the lack of imaginative writing on The Great Famine. Culture, he said, had “never produced a writer up to the occasion.” Writing in this journal recently, Diarmaid Ferriter acknowledged that “historians have long seemed to exercise some form of self-censorship on the subject.” The late great Tom Murphy wrote in the introduction to his play, Famine, that “a hungry and demoralized people become silent”. Fortunately times are changing and the government recently designated the third Sunday in May as National Famine Day.
Perhaps now Irish writers are up to the challenge. In 2003, Terry Eagleton presented Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor as a novel “that pushed Irish fiction to a richer and more foreign land” and last year, Paul Lynch’s third novel, Grace, managed to push the novel Famine into even richer territory. and still foreign.
As a writer, Lynch is sui generis. His style is daring, grandiose, bewitching. He aspires to great effects, fights with Les Grandes Idées. In the formulation of Herman Melville, he is one of those writers who dare to “dive” into the darkest recesses of the soul, risking everything to surface while squeezing the pearl. As with many romantically inclined writers, however, there is a corollary nonchalance about audience, intrigue, and consistency that some readers may find disconcerting.
Lynch has been compared to greats like Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett while others have placed him in the Irish Gothic tradition of Stoker and Le Fanu. Granted, original talent often inspires critical confusion, so perhaps the best that can be said is that Lynch’s work defies easy categorization. What we can also say, without hesitation, is that this is a writer who has marked out his literary ground and plows it with his customary verve and enthusiasm.
The novel opens with a breathtaking setting in which young Grace is transported to “the deadly stump” by her mother. In Sarah’s hand is the blunt knife normally used for slaughtering cattle. Grace worries she’s about to meet her maker, but what she actually encounters is “her long hair fall” as Sarah cuts her locks in hopes of making her look boyish. for its own protection. Thus is set the tone of threat and foreboding where “the gods have abandoned us” and “life is only insult and misfortune”. Lynch’s fictional world is at the same time Hobbesian, fatalistic, and irrecoverable, save for the survivor’s instinct to “take your own luck”, a gift Grace quickly acquires.
Grace is a wonderful character who, throughout her Odyssian journeys through famine-ravaged Ireland, demonstrates courage, resourcefulness and resilience beyond her age. Hunger, she soon discovers, reduces normal mortals to wild predators. No one is trustworthy.
The gallimaufry of characters she meets on the road are rascals and rascals with bizarre names, with a few honorable exceptions. The plot, as it stands, is repetitive and episodic with the furious controversy the reader might have expected confined to a few short passages. Best of all is John Bart’s moving soliloquy in which he berates “the haves and have-nots” for their serene indifference to the suffering of hoi polloi. Flashes of Comedy are courtesy of Puckish Colly, Grace’s brother and travel companion. Often times when it seems like things can’t get worse, it’s Colly’s scabrous wit and wisdom that strengthens her and keeps her going. What we, the readers, have to find out for themselves.
Any discussion of a Paul Lynch novel would be incomplete, however, without reference to his extravagant prose style which has been described as a dialect rich in Scottish inflections of Donegal (although it is doubtful anyone has ever spoken of this way.) A more plausible interpretation suggests that it really is a literary idiolect deriving from Lynch’s magpie-wit and keen ear for a sentence. A reviewer of The Road by Cormac MacCarthy once noted “the poetic heights diverted from its prose, the simple declamation and plainsong of its rendered dialect” and, of course, there are echoes of The Road in Grace. The tongue is a succulent fruit occasionally strewn with rough seeds that some readers may find it difficult to swallow. Nouns become verbs, verbs become adjectives, and the word order is scrambled. He has a fetish for hyphenated coins, some of which work (the “soft bump of cattle walking”) and others (“teeth caught by fire”) that may not work. .
There is a conscious construction here, an effort for the numinous where words can literally fail. As one character suggests, “there are things in this world that cannot be expressed in words,” a sentiment Lynch would surely agree with. Lynch himself has said that readers of literary fiction have to “do a little bit of homework sometimes” and if you approach this novel unprepared for the imaginative and linguistic challenges presented, you might be tempted to try something less demanding. That would, in my opinion, be a mistake. As I said earlier, Lynch is a writer who dares to “dive” into the darkest recesses of the soul and to dive alongside her is an exhilarating experience no intrepid reader can afford to pass up.