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.