Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan is a heat haze of a novel – shimmering and elusive, impossible to pin down with an allure that is as beautiful as it is disturbing.
It is also a difficult book to review. For a novel in which little is revealed, it is hard to talk about without spoiling the experience for a new reader. It also defies categorization. It is a poetic horror story. A gothic tale set in the blazing sunshine of a summer on an Irish ghost estate. It is a confession, but may also be a defense. It does not give easy answers so will not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it to be a beguiling, poetic and atmospheric book, unlike anything I have read in recent years.
The book opens with an Irish priest, living along. In the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of a summer heat wave, there is a banging at his door, and there he finds a 12 year old girl – thin, sunburned and mute – with words scrawled all over her body in pen. The priest knows how this could look so he calls his cleaner and the police to keep himself right.
If I am honest, I would even say that I already felt guilty. Why? I had done nothing. I had done nothing apart from let the girl in, call the law and wait. I hadn’t laid a finger on her.
The priest knows how blame can stick and how in particular it can stick to a man of his profession and what follows is the story of how the girl came to his door to that day, covered in writing and saying that her father had gone. Do we, the reader trust him? As the girl’s story unfolds in first and third person narrative, the unreliability of who is telling the story becomes subsumed in the unreliability of reality itself.
A young couple and their daughter move into a vacant show house on what appears to be an abandoned housing estate somewhere in Ireland. Flood, the developer collects their rent while his nephew Marcus stays on site at night in a caravan. The mother, Helen, has a twin sister Martina, who lives with them also and she and the girl’s father Paul work together although their relationship appears stained. The sister’s are from the area. Something happened to their parents that caused them to move away, but now they have returned. The heat wave is freakish, creating an atmosphere of heavy menace, the rising dust and empty houses inhabiting a sense of apocalyptic dread.
All of which is clear enough. Up to this point, the story can be mapped and followed with some certainty. From there, however, its path tapers into long grass. Reason, with all its explanations, takes is this far and no farther.
What follows is a series of disappearances, vanishings and strange misunderstandings. The family hears noises in the night. Words appear written in the dust on their patio windows. First the water runs out, then the electricity.
A group of Polish men move into a nearby house, but when the girl’s father goes to complain about the noise from one of their parties, he finds the house empty. Reality becomes a reflection of something else and it is impossible to pin down what is real and what is not.
There are moments when the empty space of a room takes on the shape of one who must have stood there and who perhaps should still be there. In those moments, that space is like a cavity, an entrance even. It hangs heavy with absence. Its translucence collects, magnifies. Everything the other side of it appears minutely out of proportion with everything else outside its frame. It acquires a quality. There is no other word for it. The quality the empty space acquires is that of a lake’s surface or of some lead-based mirror glass.
Everything appears to be in between something else, including the young girl, whose first language is German and is now unable to fully understand the language she must speak. Nothing is permanent, not even reality which appears to shift and realign as the novel goes on. Things start to disappear and people become confused with one another in a way that is reminiscent of the work of JG Ballard. As the family’s situation becomes all the more bewildering and terrifying, so too does the wasteland in which they exist.
The shops were desolate. Even the minimart, usually stocked with tat for passing traffic, felt empty. Paul bought a net of satsumas and a Sharpie of royal washable blue for the girl, but there was no one to pay….There was footpath for half a mile of road from the edge of town and none for the second half-mile after the supermarket. They stepped into long grass and briars whenever they heard a car coming. Twice they made way, and twice nothing came.
Reading this story becomes not unlike the experience of watching an eclipse of the sun. It is both blinding and dark at the same time and it is impossible to look at directly. O’Callaghan creates the perfect balancing act between mystery and revelation. It would be easy for the reader to become frustrated with such an elliptical narrative, but it is that very bewildering lack of knowledge that drives the story.
Where does everybody go?
Conor O’Callaghan is also a poet and it shows here. The writing may be plain, at times dead-pan, but every word is chosen perfectly to create an atmosphere of both dread and also unbearable sadness. The writing is simple, yet sophisticated and the elusiveness of the narrative becomes its key strength. O’Callaghan has created a traditional gothic horror story in a modern, new Ireland and by doing so, presents our modern day fears in the relentless, blinding sunshine. It is a wonderful feat and an extraordinary book, haunting, ambiguous and unforgettable.
I received a copy of Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan from the publisher in return for an honest review.