Red Sky in Morning, by Paul Lynch
An intriguing debut novel reflects its author’s past as a film critic, as well as showing off his love of language
Red Sky in Morning
Paul Lynch has worked as a film critic, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that his first novel seems to be inspired by cinema as much as by literature. Or that to describe Red Sky in Morning I find myself couching it in movie terms: Famine in the style of Pulp Fiction crossed with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, say. Hapless tenantry, coffin ships, gratuitous killings and cowboy-style vendettas all have parts to play.
And some brooding nature documentary on steroids would have to be thrown in for atmosphere. Although, that said, nature in this novel does more than merely evoke atmosphere. Lynch forefronts it, like a character in its own right, one that is bigger than the human characters who move under its lurid skies and through the wildernesses of its morasses and waters and virgin wastes.
Set in the early 1800s, the era in Ireland of callous landlords and easy evictions and in the United States of the callous march of civilisation, this is a novel that belongs, in principle, to the historical genre. The story is rooted in recognisable, even familiar, historical events. But it has a quality of the fantastical and a blithe uninterest in fidelity to historical detail and nuance that liberate it from such a categorisation.
On a blood-red morning in Inishowen, Coll Coyle and his family are facing the horror of imminent eviction. Why the young landlord, Hamilton, has taken a whim to put them out of their house and fields the Coyles have no idea – the reason is revealed only in the final pages. In a frenzy of despair and rage, Coll murders Hamilton and has to go on the run.
The foreman, Faller, takes it on himself to hunt Coll down. It is soon plain that he will follow him to the ends of the earth. Why he is so fixed on avenging Hamilton isn’t satisfactorily explored, but anyway the chase is on. Lurching and stumbling through the wilds of Co Donegal, Coll evades Faller by the skin of his teeth. At length he makes his way to Derry, where he robs the wherewithal to board a ship bound for New York. Behind him there’s death and mayhem as Faller wreaks revenge on his associates.
For Coll, while he’s safe for the time being, there is no let-up in the grim struggle for survival. Between the majesty of sea and sky the ship is an impressively wrought arena of watching your back, of disease and dying.
Arrived in New York, Coll falls for the big-talking promises of a flash entrepreneur, a man called Duffy who is hiring his fellow Irish to cut the new railroad. Coll and his shipboard friend, the Cutter, fetch up at Duffy’s Cut, the scene of the infamous real-life tragedy in which numbers of men died of cholera and others of violent assault. Coll grimly labours, dreaming of home and trying to keep disillusion and disease at bay.
But Faller is on his trail. Here the story quickens into suspense. Will he track his quarry down? There are more narrow escapes, in which Faller plays the role of the monster in a thriller movie, appearing with his enigmatic smile at every turn. He has been a mysterious character, but now he becomes nothing more than a psychotic gunman, morphing into that horseman, familiar from Westerns, who rides gimlet-eyed across ridges and ravines, killing as he goes.
The narrative seems to shift eras as well. Maybe it’s the transition from the wet and drear and bushy (and, surely ahistorically, sparsely populated) land of Donegal to the brown earth and thriving red-roofed farms of Pennsylvania, but here the novel assumes a mood that seems to belong to a time decades later.
Coll, the good guy, is more rounded. He is given the natural sentiments of love and grief and loyalty. There’s another nice cinematic touch (Citizen Kane’s Rosebud?) in his sole memento of home, which he treasures: a ribbon that belonged to the little daughter he has had to leave behind. But merging as he does into the archetypal crowd of humanity and the powerful landscapes that surround him, he needs more individuality to truly come alive.
For all its thriller components this is an intensely literary novel, depending on atmosphere and evocation for its effect. Above anything else the author has an ardour for language, not only for what it can describe but also for describing things freshly. This is an admirable ambition, and very often he does it with striking and admirable success. Sometimes he does it wonderfully.
At the same time, though, it’s a way of writing that draws attention to itself at the expense of everything else. The inversion of nouns and adjectives (“the road narrow”) becomes intrusive, as do showy alternatives – coats are not put on but are sleeved, the sun is coffined and evenings complete rather than end – when they’re repeated again and again. Swerving between a kind of Kiltartan picturesque and the incongruously modern, it’s a style that is burdened by too blatant an anxiety to be different.
That I wasn’t quite taken by Red Sky in Morning does not mean, however, that it’s not an intriguing debut. It has more than enough ambition and verve to make it that. Seeing what Paul Lynch does in the future is going to be interesting.
Anne Haverty’s most recent novel is The Free and Easy.