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.