Multilayered story: Gavin Corbett
This Is the Way By Gavin Corbett, Fourth Estate, £14.99
It says a lot about the pace of social evolution that, in 21st-century Ireland, Traveller culture is still seen as largely synonymous with violence, confrontation and dubious taste in dresses. While I was reading Gavin Corbett’s novel, an uproar arose in Co Donegal about news reports that a house outside Ballyshannon had been burned to the ground rather than allow a Traveller family to move in. Meanwhile, over on Channel 4, there was a special edition, for St Valentine’s Day, of the horrendous TV show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
The opening pages of This Is the Way appear to be playing to this depressingly familiar stereotype. The narrator, Anthony Sonaghan, is a Traveller descended from two feuding families. He is forced to flee to Dublin to escape the regular conflicts between his many cousins and uncles; meanwhile, it’s clear that Anthony’s father, a famous bareknuckle boxer, was also inclined to raise his fists to his family. It’s enough to make the reader’s heart sink a little.
By the bottom of page 1, however, the musical lilt of Anthony’s voice has already begun to work its magic, and when his incorrigible uncle Arthur shows up at the local Spar, one hand clutching a bottle of Club and the other wrapped in a bloody cloth, the story takes wings.
They are quite a pair. Anthony is a gentle soul who lives in a tenement house full of immigrants, an outsider among outsiders. The fact that he has been taken up by a university librarian named Judith and her middle-class arty friends, who pester him to provide them with a supply of folksy tales, only increases his alienation.
Arthur, meanwhile, is a chancer and a charmer whose assumption that his nephew will simply scoop him into his care drives the younger man to distraction. “First time he got lost, he could not find the Spar, he came straight back. I says help me, help me someone, this is what you do. I went to the Spar myself I says I will keep going, I will leave him in that room.”
But he doesn’t. Instead, as the bond between uncle and nephew grows, Anthony’s story emerges in a slow, multilayered unfurling. There is a powerful, poetic creation myth that portrays the feuding families as fish that originated in Lough Melvin, on the Leitrim-Fermanagh border. (In real life, sonaghans and gillaroos actually are varieties of trout.) There is a hilarious scene in which Arthur auditions for a part in a production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. There are replays of Anthony’s almost-romance with a Spanish student and of Arthur’s ill-fated marriage to Teresa.
The triumph is in the telling. Anthony’s voice, once heard, is hard to forget; its rhythms, its repetitions, its sly humour – all strike the reader as genuinely original. Its a timely reminder that while fiction may not change things in the real world, it does offer us new ways to dream.