Nothing on Earth: as good and as rare as a long hot Irish summer

Conor O’Callaghan’s editor recalls the thrill of discovering a hot new author and a blistering world of compelling characters, as mesmerising as a mirage

Conor O’Callaghan is from Newry, Co Down, and now lives in Manchester.   Nothing on Earth is his first novel

Conor O’Callaghan is from Newry, Co Down, and now lives in Manchester. Nothing on Earth is his first novel

 

It might seem perverse to write affectionately of a dreary afternoon in January, but it was at just such a moment that Nothing on Earth landed in my inbox, accompanied by an agent’s note so brief and tantalising it was a struggle to resist. So I didn’t. As I began to read, the crawl of the traffic outside and the whir of the office computers quickly faded. Now I was walking the parched, eerie streets of an abandoned ghost estate, in a place that for all its otherness could only be Ireland, alongside characters whose vivid strangeness was instantly arresting.

Of course, it’s impossible to know, at the beginning of any novel, that a quality or intensity of tone will sustain; that the story will pay off; that all the good stuff isn’t crammed into the opening pages. But it’s hard to ignore that delicious, creeping suspicion that one is in the hands of a writer who knows exactly what they’re doing, and then, even more urgently, the realisation that what they’re doing isn’t just very good but exceptional. Sure enough, by the end of the first, short, fraught yet exquisitely controlled chapter, I was smitten with Nothing on Earth.

Conor and I agreed that opacity was integral to the novel, and that while there was a balance to be struck, too much clarity would detract from its haunting flavour and diminish its power

The assuredness of the writing was clear from the first sentence. I was struck by its almost brutal economy – brilliantly augured by the agent’s note – as well as its strangely hypnotic rhythms. The spareness of Conor’s prose, along with its refusal to commit to concrete events and details, makes of the reader a rock-climber on a slippery ascent, calculating where next to find purchase and hoping it will hold. The effect could be infuriating, but is highly addictive.

I was captivated, too, by the voice of the priest – a haunted man, who in his desperate struggle to prove his innocence, becomes less and less convincing, even to himself: “The truth I maintained then was almost exactly the same as it is now. I saw nothing . . . I saw next to nothing.” As with many of fiction’s most compelling characters, I was forced to feel at once deeply sympathetic and intensely suspicious of him – both as man and narrator.

As if all this didn’t make for a heady enough mix, it is a blistering world Conor invites us to inhabit. There really is something about a hot book, and just as with the scorching heat of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock or McEwan’s The Cement Garden (works that have undeniable parallels with this one), the long, sweltering summer on the estate intensifies an atmosphere already fraught with unknown menace.

So, what is the source of this menace? What is going on? What is the book really about? Unsurprisingly, with a piece as enigmatic and non-conformist as Nothing on Earth, these were not easy questions to answer. This is not a straightforward book, and I haven’t encountered another like it. It demands that the reader participate, because it won’t offer any solutions on a plate. Is it a ghost story? Is it a sinister tale of sexual abuse? Perhaps it is about nothingness, both in a Sartrean nihilistic sense and a more literal absence; that of the people we love and where they go when they leave us.

Undoubtedly, the book speaks of and to the hollowness of post-crash consciousness; of shattered dreams and previously unthinkable realities, and the gothic tropes shed refreshing new light on well-trodden ground. But while one can speculate indefinitely about what the book means, what mattered most, when it came to it, was that it was an extraordinarily immersive read – one that, even after the final page was turned, refused to release its grasp.

Discussing Nothing on Earth with colleagues was fascinating, and while interpretations were various, we were all mesmerised by the mysterious and unsettling world it conjured, and the questions it left hanging. If we weren’t talking about it, we were thinking about it.

When the euphoria of commissioning the book subsided, the very enjoyable task of editing took over. Further reads of Nothing on Earth were no less intense or impressive, and there was little work to be done. Early on, Conor and I agreed that opacity was integral to the novel, and that while there was a balance to be struck, too much more clarity would detract from its haunting flavour and diminish its power. The world of the ghost estate is a shaky, unstable one: noises emanate from derelict houses in the night; the names we are given for certain characters may or may not be the right ones; people disappear without a trace. To continue the climbing metaphor, we decided that, once or twice, the reader should be thrown a rope – but no more than that.

A couple of weeks ago, on an afternoon comparably grey and wintry to that of two years ago, an early copy of the paperback edition landed on my desk. I couldn’t resist picking it up again, though I’ve read it more times than I can count. Remarkably, even the opening chapter still held surprises, its culmination as potent and chilling as ever: “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.”
Eileen Battersby interviews Conor O’Callaghan at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin’s Parnell Square on Wednesday, April 26th, at 7.30pm. It will be available as a podcast on April 30th. He will be appearing in conversation with AL Kennedy at Cúirt literary festival in Galway on Friday, April 28th at 6.30pm. Nothing on Earth is available in paperback (Black Swan Ireland, £7.99)

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