‘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.

Announcing Reading Ireland Month!

 

It’s that time again! March is coming, my favourite month in my blogging calendar, because it’s Reading Ireland Month – will you be joining us?

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Ah, gwan, ya will!

Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Where they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they re-established literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe. And that is how the Irish saved civilization.

Thomas Cahill

By now you’ll know that Ireland is about so much more than shamrocks, St. Patrick and leprechauns. For a country the same size as South Carolina, it packs a hefty cultural punch. Ireland has produced four Nobel Prize winners; five Booker Prize winners; some world dominating musicians; a host of Oscar winners (and another nominated for this year’s awards) and a leading action hero from Ballymena.

We have the best pint in the world and the most stunning coastline – you could even say it’s in a galaxy far, far away.

Last year we hosted a whopping 130 posts on all things relating to Irish culture. Books, food, travel, movies, theatre and favourite bookshops – your enthusiasm was boundless and so was your reading.

So this year we hope to be bigger and better.

To celebrate the wealth and breadth and general awesomeness of Irish cultural life, 746 Books and Raging Fluff are co-hosting a month long celebration of all things Irish.

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Reading Ireland Month (or The Begorrathon as it is affectionately known) will feature book and film reviews, poems, music, interviews, giveaways and much, much more. This year I’ll be looking at female Irish Crime Writers, celebrating World Poetry Day with some new Irish Poets and compiling a list of 100 Novels by Irish Woman Writers.

We’d love for you to join us!

To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Grab our new badge and put it in your sidebar and get planning your Ireland themed reading or viewing. Like our Facebook page here and then between 1 and 31 March, post as much as you like about any aspect of Irish literature and culture – anything at all!

Read this year’s One City One Book choice Echoland by Joe Joyce. Post your wheaten bread recipe. Make a list of your favourite Irish books or movies. Eat a packet of Tayto crisps. Read a book by a female writer from Northern Ireland to support Women Aloud NI.

Ireland more last

Watch Game of Thrones and marvel at our countryside. Read some of last year’s award winning new fiction from Mike McCormick (Solar Bones) and Lisa McInerney (The Glorious Heresies). If you’re feeling brave, read Ulysses. Dress up as Mrs Doyle from Father Ted and take a selfie, whatever it is we don’t mind!

 

As an added incentive, everyone who posts during Reading Ireland Month will be entered into a draw to win a copy of the beautiful Irish literary journal The Winter Pages, edited by Kevin Barry.

We’re not big on rules so the ones we have are pretty straightforward:

  • Put a link to your post on our Facebook page and we’ll be sure to share it
  • Link to our master post on either of our blogs: FOR POSTS ABOUT POETS, PLAYWRIGHTS and AUTHORS, link back to Cathy at 746 Books
  • FOR POSTS ABOUT FILMS, MUSIC, TV or ANYTHING ELSE, link back to Niall at Raging Fluff
  • Watch our Reading Ireland Month trailer to give you some ideas for what to watch, read, eat or drink
  • Join the craic on Facebook
  • Check out the list of 100 Irish Novels on 746 Books blog in case you need some help choosing a book
  • Don’t forget to tweet about your post using the hashtags #readireland17 or #begorrathon17

We can’t wait to hear what you are planning. Have you any books or movies lined up? Any new authors or old favourites you might visit during March?

It’s going to be some craic….

 

More than loud acclaim,

I love Books, silence, thought, my alcove.

Pangur Bán Poem by Anon Irish Monk, Translated by Seamus Heaney

Reading Ireland Month – Sin uile folks!*

*That’s all Folks!

So there we have it. Another Reading Ireland Month/ Begorrathon is over and what a great month it was!

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With over 130 blog posts, an array of writers, poets, musicians and movies were explored. I read and reviewed 20 books by Irish authors, reduced the 746 by 10 and discovered many, many more writers I would love to read!

You can still check out, or add to, the link up here which has gathered together all your fantastic posts.

As usual, I ran out of time and didn’t get to read everything I had planned. I also ran out of time to post about Lisa McInerney’s fabulous The Glorious Heresies and the wonderful Irish documentary The Queen of Ireland.

 

But you know, my kids had to eat and I had to sleep so I squeezed in what I could! Next year could someone make March just a few days longer?!

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Congratulations to the winners of my giveaways:

Annabel at Annabel’s House of Books won the signed copy of Gull by Glenn Patterson

Fiction Fan won a copy of The Long Gaze Back and The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

Madame Bibilophile won a copy of Fallen by Lia Mills

There will be one final giveaway of a subscription to Irish literary journal The Stinging Fly which will be open to everyone who contributed a Reading Ireland Month post and I will make the draw next week once all posts have been added.

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Highlights of the month for me were the response to my post about the criminally under read Maeve Brennan, seeing your choices for the month and getting into a Twitter chat with Lia Mills about my slowly decreasing TBR!

The main highlight though was all the fantastic enthusiasm and support I received from the blogosphere. Thanks to everyone who took part, from the blog posts to the retweets, you have all been supportive and joined in the fun.

Thanks to Niall at The Fluff is Raging for co-hosting this year’s celebration with me. Remember The Begorrathon Facebook page celebrates Irish literature and culture all year round, so do give us a follow.

For now though, it’s back to normality here at 746books. I’ll keep working away at that TBR and I am looking forward to planning my books for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

As usual in the week after Reading Ireland Month, I question whether or not I will do it again, but I’m sure Reading Ireland Month will return in some shape or form. I’ve even been debating whether or not there would be any interest out there for a Ulysses Readalong?

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Look at that monster!

 

Am I mad? Most likely….