'When writing it's just you, the wall and whoever your first reader is . . .'
Peter Murphy's second novel is inspired by events from his hometown, and it covers a huge range of topics, from preaching to psychiatry - in just 250 pages
‘An epic novel in 250 pages,” is how the musician and journalist Peter Murphy describes his new novel, Shall We Gather at the River. It sounds like a brave – or foolhardy – aspiration; certainly the book is brimming over with ideas, themes, characters and esoteric information.
It contains evangelical preachers, father-son relationships, psychiatry, Middle Eastern flood myths. It also takes on one of the most difficult, delicate, painful subjects of contemporary life in Ireland and elsewhere: the occurrence of suicide clusters.
The idea for the book came when Murphy – a long-time writer for Hot Press magazine and a regular guest on RTÉ’s review show The Works – interviewed two members of the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers.
Famously, the band’s guitarist and songwriter Richey Edwards went missing in 1995, his car found abandoned near a bridge on the river Severn. The topic of suicide cycles came up in the conversation, and Murphy mentioned what had happened in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, in the winter of 2002, when a number of people drowned in the river Slaney. “Nicky Wire, the Manics’ bassist, said, ‘That’s a novel.’ And I went home and thought, Yes, it is,” Murphy says.
In the book, which has no connection to the real-life tragedies in Co Wexford, the stories of the nine fictional characters who drown are hinted at rather than fully realised. “I appreciate it’s a raw and painful subject for many people,” says Murphy, who was born in Enniscorthy. “I didn’t enter into it lightly; and I did my best to be truthful with it. Or to be emotionally truthful. Even though a certain character’s story might be addressed and dispatched within three pages, I wanted their predicament to be almost as potent as a poem. I wanted the reader to feel that they wanted more of everyone because their lives were cut short.
“All the characters have this relationship with their place. And they’re all under the spell of their environment – specifically, the river.”
Power of recorded sound
It’s a theme deep and dark enough to overwhelm most fictional narratives. But Shall We Gather at the River has all those other aspects to lighten the load. Among other things, for example, the book pays heartfelt tribute to the power of radio and recorded sound. “My whole life has probably become a homage to sound, one way or another,” Murphy says. “I grew up listening to Radio Luxembourg, having the transistor to my ear under the bedclothes.”
His story takes place in 1984, “the last retro-futuristic year”, as he puts it. “I remember playing Space Invaders, going to the cinema and seeing Videodrome and The Terminator. And a lot of the music, though it sounds dated now, was futuristic, using analogue synthesisers. So that all fed into the idea of sound: the sound of the river itself, the invisible patterns and reverberations . . . the voices in one’s head.”