Purple prose overwhelms a powerful plot
Irish writer’s rich, ornate prose is in the mode of a storyteller of the Fianna
Paul Lynch: a writer in the mode of a Fiannaíocht storyteller. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
The Black Snow
Paul Lynch’s debut novel, Red Sky in Morning , was published last year to rapturous acclaim for its rich style: poetic, darkly lyrical and startling are the descriptions of choice. The cover of the new novel is snowed under with similar accolades: wonderful, sumptuous, “a sensational gift for a sentence”.
In his new novel his gift for rich, elaborate writing is once again on display. His language is ornate and resonant – sumptuous is the word. And he uses words most imaginatively: he has invented a syntax of his own – “Matthew pulled from the earth a stone shaped strange and he stopped and rubbed at its muck. A quality to it he saw and he spat on it and wiped it on his trousers.”
This style is not colloquial. I don’t think anyone actually says “a quality to it he saw”. Nor is it based on Irish. Rather it suggests that it is a dialect, and hints at origins elsewhere than English – Irish, given that the setting is Donegal. A good spattering of Ulster Scots – weans and braes and so on – bolsters a sense of place. Surnames are authentic Donegal – Peoples and McLaughlin and McDaid. Personal names can be more exotic, perhaps in homage to the writers of the American south whom Lynch must admire tremendously.
The historical setting, 1945, is also rather loose. Rationing and black bread are referred to regularly, but there is little else in the way of historical detail to indicate the war years. Like the place, and the dialect, the period is suggested rather than delineated.
In fact the novel could be set in almost any time and in any place, as long as both time and place were cruel and bleak, without redemption. Perhaps the intention is to provide a metaphor for the dark centre of the 20th century.
The story focuses on Barnabas, who lives with his wife, Eskra, dog, Cyclops, and son, Billy, on a good-sized farm. In the opening sequence a byre on the farm burns down. Barnabas’s herd of cattle is killed, as well as his hired man, Matthew Peoples. The consensus is that the fire was accidental, but Barnabas has his suspicions, which embitter him and prove detrimental for his relationship with the community. His other problem is that he allowed the insurance on the farm to lapse.
Disaster follows disaster in a grim succession of accidents, betrayals, vindictive acts and words. Finally the secret of the fire is revealed, as the novel reaches its horrific climax.
Barnabas is compellingly drawn, and he is a classic tragic hero in that his stubborn refusal to compromise or capitulate is partly responsible for his eventual downfall. But he is also a victim of circumstance. We witness him and his family being tossed around like playthings by the dark forces of nature.
“ The Black Snow sees Paul Lynch take the pastoral novel and tear it apart”, the publisher’s blurb claims. I’m not sure which “pastoral novel” is intended here. Rural Irish noir is more common than Irish pastoral, but that is generally relieved by a comic touch.
Lightened by purple prose
No trace of irony or the comedic lightens the grim tone of this book. It is made bearable only by its purple prose. The striking talent of its author is his ability to reinvent the English language and use words as no one has before: “She went towards them hesitant, each hand beaked birdly up her sleeves. Dark rust of hair on the boy and she saw he whispered something quick to the others when he saw her.”
The Irish storytelling tradition has a genre of stories that demands immense rhetorical skill. These are the Fiannaíocht or Fenian tales, stories of the Fianna, which were told almost exclusively by men, and which were vehicles for showing off the verbal prowess of the narrator: his vast vocabulary, his memory for high-flown poetic passages, often almost meaningless.
In this genre, style is the thing; it’s much more important than plot or characterisation. Paul Lynch, it seems to me, although he is indebted to Cormac McCarthy and probably to William Faulkner, is a good example of a writer in the mode of a Fiannaíocht storyteller – an artist who values form above substance, loves to use an enormous vocabulary and to twist sentences into the most extraordinary and exotic shapes, like a conjurer manipulating balloons at a children’s party.
There is a magic to this kind of writing, and many people love and admire Lynch’s great rhetorical skill. In an interview he has said that he revises his sentences up to 50 times, and it shows on every page. His ornate, flowery language can be delicious, but it competes rather than helps the novel to find itself, and sometimes obscures his meaning rather than enhances it. Occasionally you suspect that the writer doesn’t have enough faith in the story he is telling, which is a pity, because it is a powerful one.