Jack Sammon recounts his childhood years growing up on a small farm in the west of Ireland in the early 80’s. The father died some years previously. He and his older brother Seán learn the skills of farming and the rhythms of nature from an aging neighbour – Martín Conway – who becomes a father figure to them. Lambing season, bullying teachers, fights at school, and scoffers in the pub are all chronicled. The prose is underpinned by Jack’s sensitivity to the landscape and the seasons.
I took to visiting the faery wood whenever I could. I would climb another oak tree and sit on a bough looking out over the lake, watching and listening, sometimes talking aloud to the air. Things still had a wintry look to them. The hills in the distance might have a white cap from a night of snow or hail. The flock of whooper swans was nearing the end of the winter stay on the lake, and would soon be off to their breeding grounds in Greenland, Martín said. I counted upwards of thirty-three and wondered how many of them would make it back again the next year and how many would perish on their migration.
The novel is written as Jack’s memoir as he waits on remand to be tried for some unnamed crime. Each chapter begins with a short passage in italics depicting Jack’s inner mind as he sits in his cell. The narrative he writes in the prison-issue exercise book is neutral and slow-paced, in a functional prose. The italic passages however are fragmentary and immediate mixtures of memories of his arrest, experiences on remand, and despairing thoughts.
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The reader’s sympathies tend naturally to lie with the young boy at first. But Jack is a frustrating protagonist to root for. He resents his mother’s new partner and becomes more distant from his brother and younger sister. He harbours obscure resentments. He brings his girlfriend on a walk through some no-man’s land by the lake and tells her that the little flat stones are graves; they are in a graveyard for unbaptised babies. In one passage depicting a small-town rite of passage – a scuffle among the boys followed by an encounter with girls at the local chipper – his attention lingers on the girls and then skips on:
Shoulders nudged, heads flicked; legs, shapes and sizes were admired; tongues clicked, and as I came from the shop with two Cokes, Liam was talking to a girl from the convent. The amorous dogs hadn’t been distracted for long and were regrouped, snapping at each other in their excitement.
It’s disturbing image, just quietly dropped in there. Those dogs return over a hundred pages later at a moment of what should have been tenderness: “… and the old anxieties and self-doubt returned. I was waiting for the mongrel street-wise dogs to arrive sniffing and snapping; for a herd, heifers and their calves, to come bumping and bucking from among the trees and to walk in and foul the water; for a ram with flared nostrils to charge among the ewes.”
The narrator has implicated the reader too deeply in his story for him to be able to distinguish to what extent to what extent Jack’s predicament is a result of Catholic Ireland’s repression, Jack’s own morbidity, or the tragic secret his mother hides.
The author Paul Soye evidently holds to the Heraclitean wisdom “A man’s character is his fate”. After almost 200 pages chronicling his teenage years, the story jumps to London. The immersion in the buzz and hum of the metropolis is an invigorating change – for the reader – but it will not deflect the inevitable tragedy. His new girlfriend, marriage, and promotions at the concrete plant are sketched over in a couple of dozen pages. This should be the happiest time of his life. But his character has been formed, the trap is set, the return to Ireland looms closer.
The novel is a meticulously crafted depiction of that peculiar confluence of family loyalties, sexual shame, and love of the land which used to power the psyche of rural Ireland and still does in many hidden ways. The story has the peculiar quality that you get the impression the author himself is struggling to comprehend the forces at work here. Psychologists and sociologists will be free to draw their own conclusions, treating the novel as a window to reality which no interview or statistical survey can ever access.