Graceby Paul LynchLittle, Brown, 2017The new book by Paul Lynch, author of the critically-acclaimed and quite good Red Sky in Morning, is a different undertaking in both scope and power than anything this author has written before. Grace, set in bitterly impoverished mid-19th century Donegal at the dawn of the Irish Potato Famine, shares the linguistic virtuosity of Lynch's earlier books and their tone of threnody; these aren't beach reads, unless your beach is rocky, dark, and freezing cold – so, come to think of it: Irish beaches. But in these pages Lynch has deepened and refined his art considerably – there are entire sections of the book that are unforgettable.The story centers on fourteen-year-old Grace, whose frightened, beaten mother one day makes a pathetic bid for Grace's survival: she cuts off Grace's hair, binds her budding breasts, and bids her be a boy – she will be strong now, and thereby she will escape from the grinding doom that's overtaking the rest of the family.Daunted, Grace of course complies, but she doesn't want to escape alone. Her little brother Colly – gamely rendered by Lynch as not so much old beyond his years but rather bitter beyond them – is still in the clutches, literally, of Boggs, the red-bearded ogre who rules the life of their mother and her other children. The first thing Grace does to save herself is to save Colly by taking him from Boggs, which she does in the open street one day almost entirely without planning to:
What she does. It is something later she realizes that just happened, as if she turned mechanical or became possessed by some spirit. Or even that there was another person hiding inside her all along. The way she plucked from the wall a tooth-shaped rock and came up behind Boggs, put it to his head. The way she felled him, the big man turning around like some slow animal to the blow, hinging down onto one knee and then the other, and how their eyes met as he turned to fathom what struck him, the unexpected composure in his eyes, the poison boiled to those darkly stars and behind that dark the light she saw of an understanding, a communication between the two of them that terrified her to her innermost – and then Boggs is just sitting there in the road with a hand to his head, muted, stupid, bloody, and Colly is on his feet trying hard to hitch up his trousers that are inside out, the flesh of his right eye sprung red, and she is shouting at him – run! Colly, run, for fuck's sake!
The combination of Joycean rhetorical slurry and punctuated profanity will alert readers instantly to the fact that they're reading modern contemporary Irish fiction. This is Eimear McBride territory, and it is consistently yielding conspicuously fine novels like McBride's The Lesser Bohemians or Paul Murray's The Mark and the Void – or Grace, which grows in narrative strength as it follows Grace and Colly on their trek across an Ireland so emptied and bewildered it might as well be some fantasy novel's post-apocalyptic landscape. The elevated tone, the monstrousness of Boggs, the gender-concealment, indeed even Grace's name – all are tip-offs to the fact that Lynch is working in a mythological vein, and he keeps it up right to the book's richly ambiguous closing sections, as in the moment when Grace encounters orphans of the blight who have been driven by desperation to clutch at that same mythology for a little hope:
In woodland farther north she meets a gang of vagrant children. They stand savage and soiled with wild hair but it is their eyes she notices, eyes that meet you like the sorry look of a dog. Not an elder to be seen among them. They live in rough huts assembled from cuttings of fir and she shares with them her bread and sleeps with them at night, watches the stumble of a young child never taught to walk properly. A boy keeps asking her questions. Do you think Fionn MacCumhaill is hiding in the mountains? Do you think he is waiting to return and rescue Ireland? The question-putter keeps pulling her by the arm as she goes to leave. He says, I had a home once but nobody awoke from their sleeping.
There's a heavy-handedness to this, it's true; if you're going to read an Irish novel about the Irish Potato Famine, heavy-handedness is practically a required admission fee. But Lynch does his best to compensate, including by means of self-consciously luscious prose – “A sky of old cloth and the sun stained upon it,” we read at one point, and at another, “a great hand of rain is flung from the east.” He comes at his characters – even the simplest of them – prismatically, illuminating now one shard and now another, to beautiful composite effect; these characters never for an instant feel believable, but in the furtive, glowing world of Grace, believability would almost seem out of place. The is a magic landscape of hopelessness and thin chance; in such a place you'd not expect the plain plod of starvation, any more than you'd expect to find Fionn MacCumhaill down at the ostler's yard.