It’s 2008, and the Celtic Tiger has left devastation in its wake. Brothers Hart and Cormac Black are waking up to a very different Ireland – one that widens the chasm between them and brings their beloved father to his knees. Facing a devastating choice that will put their livelihood, even their lives, on the line, the brothers soon learn that the biggest danger comes when there’s nothing left to lose.
“The night the Chief died, I lost my father and the country lost a battle it wouldn’t confess to be fighting. For the no-collared labouring class. For the decent, dependable patriarch. For right of entry from the field to the garden.”
From this short opening paragraph it’s clear that there will be no happy ending for the Black family. Although the following two, equally short paragraphs (which complete the opening chapter) contain clues about the nature of the ‘devastating choice’ which is made, I’m not going to spell it out because I think the immense power of this story lies in the gradual unfolding of the family relationships and dynamics which influence the choices, past and present, which lead to the shocking conclusion of this remarkable novel.
The story’s setting is rural Ireland in 2014, a country still suffering from the economic recession which followed the 2008 crash. The Black family is in crisis: patriarch Manus, referred to as the Chief by his sons, is terminally-ill and the half-million pound debt he has accrued, the result of a failed investment in a Bulgarian property development, has meant that family farm has been re-mortgaged and, with the recent cuts in the agricultural subsidies, its future viability is in doubt. There is long-standing rivalry between the two brothers: the accepted ‘wisdom’ in the family being that twenty five year old Hart, the narrator of the story, got the looks whilst Cormac, two years older, got the brains, enabling him to go off to university, leaving Hart behind to work on the farm. Hart’s resentment towards his brother is fuelled by the fact that his father’s financial difficulties arose because, wanting to benefit from the pre-2008 boom, which was improving the fortunes of so many in the country, he’d acted on investment advice given to him by Cormac. Whilst it is clear that Hart loves his father, his relationship with his emotionally-cold mother, a former nun, lacks any sort of warmth or closeness, in fact he refers to her by her Christian name, Nóra. He has little patience with her strait-laced attitudes, which he regards as fundamentally hypocritical.
“To move wild laughter in the throat of death? It cannot be, it is impossible: mirth cannot move a soul in agony.”
It is this quote from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost which provided the author with the title for this truly remarkable story of a family, and a country, in crisis. It was only once I turned the final page that I was able to truly appreciate how perfectly apt her choice was for this brutally raw and dark, yet blackly comic, story. Although I found it immediately engaging and almost impossible to put down, it wasn’t a quick read because I found that the dark themes explored, in truly epic, Greek-tragedy style, required frequent reflection. These included familial expectations, intense sibling rivalry, love, guilt, loss, grief, chronic illness, changing societal mores, moral and ethical dilemmas, the echoing impact of history on a nation, faith and the power of the Catholic church, all of which are deftly woven together to create a poignant and unforgettable story.
I marvelled throughout at the author’s wonderful use of language: rich with striking metaphors and similes, with acerbic observations, evocative descriptions and memorable, vibrantly-drawn characters, all rendered in such an admirably succinct way that I’m left feeling that there was neither a wasted nor a superfluous word. Days after finishing this novel its impact remains visceral in its power and I have no hesitation in recommending it, both as a personal and as a group read.
Review by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: 5*
Group read: 5*
Oneworld 18th June 2020