‘Where does everyone go?’ Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan

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.

No 717 The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

41.Donal Ryan-The Spinning Heart

You can kind of lose yourself very quick, when all about you changes and things you thought you always would have turn out to be things you never really had, and things you were sure you’d have in the future turn out to be on the far side of a big, dark mountain that you have no hope of ever climbing over

The 21 narrators of Donal Ryan’s brief yet consuming debut novel The Spinning Heart have all lost themselves. Their community is fractured, in shock. All have been affected whether directly or indirectly by the collapse of the local building firm, the vital beating financial heart of the village. Company boss Pokey Burke has skipped town and the Celtic Tiger is a distant memory. The book opens with Pokey’s foreman Bobby Mahon who is ‘filling up with fear like a boat filling with water’ and closes with Bobby’s wife Triona noting that ‘People are scared, that’s all. I know that’.
Like one of those sliding jigsaws, Ryan gives the reader all the pieces of the story, but it is up to us to put them together and see the bigger picture. We hear from builders who don’t know where the next pennies are coming from, young people contemplating leaving for Australia, a young solicitor who has been put on part-time hours but with added duties like cleaning the toilets and a child who mimics her parent’s pain and anger which she cannot possibly understand. We even hear from a ghost. Ryan creates a powerful sense of place in this shared oral history. He looks back to those archetypes of Irish literature – the drunken Irish father, the town ‘bike’, the boy who’s ‘not all there’ and creates vivid, rich characters, often in the space of a few pages. With each story, we learn about someone new, while gaining perspective on the other characters and the town as a whole.

The use of idiom and clarity of narrative voice recalls the work of Conor McPherson and indeed there is a sense of theatre, of performance in this novel, as each character hides their true feeling to all but themselves and us. Even Seanie, the hard-nosed builder, who yearns for simpler times when his swagger could pull him through, can’t reconcile what he feels with how he knows life to be,

A few times lately my hands have been wet when I’ve taken them away from my face. No fucker knows that though, nor never will. I’ll be grand in a while. I have no right to feel like this

Each narrator in The Spinning Heart is wounded, both by the collapse of the economy and by other internal conflicts that are thrown into sharp focus by the pain and disappointment of the financial crash. From violent fathers to schizophrenia and lost children, the stories echo down the past and that past is never far away. Everything has changed but the town is stuck, literally and metaphorically, spinning like the metal heart on Frank Mahon’s gate to be blown this way and that with nowhere to anchor itself.

Image courtesy of the Irish Examiner

Image courtesy of the Irish Examiner

Everyone is trapped. Réaltín, a young attention hungry single mother lives in a ‘ghost estate’ trapped by a mortgage too big to manage and a house no one wants to buy,

There are forty-four houses in this estate. I live in number twenty-three, There’s an old lady living in number forty. There’s no one living in any of the other houses, just the ghosts of people who never existed. I’m stranded….

Réaltín’s father, in a poignant act, mows all the lawns of every house in his daughter’s street, trying to create the ordinary out of the extraordinary. A girl gives a young boy, Rory, her phone number and he talks himself out of contacting her because he knows,

It’s there for me and I won’t take it. I’ll stay at home and watch Coronation Street with the parents, thinking about how thinking about things can stop you living your life

Rory is trapped in his own insecurities, just as the ghost of Bobby Mahon’s father is trapped in his farmhouse, thinking about the things he never faced when he was alive,

I wonder how it is I was able to do to Bobby exactly what was done to me, even with my useless hands bound by cowardice. I wonder how I will ever be reconciled to myself

It might not sound like it, but there is a plot here, featuring a kidnapping and a murder and the structure of the novel allows the story to build up momentum with each telling, while at the same time stopping short just before things spiral out of control. No information comes to us first hand, the major plot points happen off stage as it were, and the reader becomes another resident of the town, piecing together what we can from hearsay and opinion. What is of main importance is how democratic pain can be. The middle classes have been affected as much as the workers, the tentacles of the crash reaching out to builders, teachers and even solicitors as each domino collapses on the next.
In the end though, The Spinning Heart is also a love story, as it is in many ways the story of Bobby and Triona whose monologues bookend the novel. Bobby has been silenced all his life by his father and even when, in awful circumstances, he should speak out, all he can say is ‘I don’t know’. But in Triona he finds a safe haven.

You can say things to your wife that you never knew you though. It just comes out of you when the person you’re talking to is like a part of yourself

Triona knows how hard it is for Bobby to share, she knows how it hurts,

But it was always too far down in Bobby for it not to cut and wound on the way out

And so does Ryan. He draws meaningful, lyrical testimony from his characters, showing us the deepest parts of them, the parts they have kept hidden, whether they be funny, banal, painful or poignant and he explores how external forces push us to look deep within and try and face up to what we find.
What we’ll find, Ryan seems to say is love. As Triona says at the end of the book,

What matters now? What matters only love?

Indeed. This is a beautifully written novel which has a compassion and honesty that left my heart spinning. I urge you to read it.

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