Himself review: He sees dead people in Mayo
Jess Kidd’s debut novel is atmospheric but too cliched to really score as mystery or drama
Jess Kidd: The author “has a lovely, unforced style, but perhaps she still needs to find the right genre to showcase her talents”.
The Erris peninsula near Belmullet in Co Mayo. Jess Kidd’s familiarity with the landscape and dialect is evident in her writing.
Poisoned scones, letter bombs, a hero who sees dead people and a 1970s Irish village desperate to maintain its pious facade: the ingredients for mystery and drama are all present early in Jess Kidd’s debut novel. Citing as its inspirations Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, Himself sets itself up as a tale of violence and death in an insular, close-knit community where any of the inhabitants could be a suspect.
A gripping prologue in the style of a Grimm’s fairytale sees a baby abandoned in a forest after his outcast teenage mother is brutally murdered in 1956. The novel then alternates between beautiful Orla’s murder and the adult orphan, Mahony, journeying to Mulderrig 20 years later. All he has to go on is a photo of himself as a baby – and a note warning him not to trust anybody in Mulderrig.
A tongue-in-cheek tone initially brings a lightness to proceedings, with characters introduced as speedily and vividly as an Agatha Christie mystery. Loquacious publican Tadgh, the puritan Widow Farelly, upstanding sergeant Jack Brophy, and weasel-like parish priest Fr Quinn make up a colourful if somewhat cliched cast.
Elevating the troupe is the ancient former actress, Mrs Cauley, a self-styled “Miss Marple with balls” whose love of mysteries niftily results in a whodunnit escapade that will centre on a production of Synge’s play.
It is one of many inventive set-ups that Kidd never really develops. There are token efforts to link her story to Synge’s great play about the duplicities of rural Irish society. Similarities abound: the wild west setting, the tale of a murder that grips a community, the hypocrisy and hearsay of village life, the piety masking the savagery, and the oppressive climate for women, who are viewed as either homemakers or whores.
Names also pay homage to Playboy: Mahony the hero, with Fr Quinn and Widow Farelly both an echo of Synge. A pronouncement from a side character towards the close of the novel hems in the famous line: “Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely.”
There is the sense throughout that these connections are forced upon the story. Little happens organically or without the guiding hand of the author. Mrs Cauley’s idea to put Mahony centre stage in the lead role of the production is introduced and then largely forgotten after the auditions. The production is shunted to the wings as other subplots take over.
In a novel that features numerous ghosts as well as the living, too much happens off-page, though Kidd succeeds in startling the reader with her blend of macabre and domestic: “Mahony ignores a suicide to the right of him, hanging from an oak tree like a twisted chrysalis.”
There is the intriguing story of a ghost child, Ida, who grimly appears to Mahony without the back of her head. Her bereaved mother is a fleeting romantic interest before the young, put-upon young landlady takes precedence. Mrs Cauley has help in her mystery-solving from another formidable older woman in the form of the priest’s housekeeper.
Meanwhile, the ghost of Cauley’s jilted lover Johnny floats around the gardens of Rathmore House, to little purpose.
An omniscient narrator skims the minds of various villagers, revealing disreputable pasts and treacherous secrets. Some of these stretch credibility, even in a novel of this ilk. Widow Farelly’s penchant for “taking care” of the elderly is a back story that is introduced much too late. Readers should guess Orla’s killer long before the reveal, divulged in a sequence of events that lacks the punch of a good comeuppance.
Kidd was raised and lives in London, but her family is from Mayo and her familiarity with the landscape and dialect is evident in her writing. She has a lovely, unforced style, but perhaps she still needs to find the right genre to showcase her talents. Mrs Cauley’s no-nonsense voice is particularly engaging, adding a whimsical tone to the investigations.
The aging sleuth’s devil-may-care attitude as she approaches the end of her life acts as a foil for the sanctimonious Fr Quinn. Her list of suspects is entitled “Men from Mulderrig (between the ages of 15 and 80) and its Environs with the Use of a Vehicle During the Summer of 1949”. Still, this knowing tone ultimately proves problematic to creating the chilling atmosphere needed to sustain the plot.
Despite an imaginative setting and richly drawn central characters, Himself never emerges as more than a mildly diverting caper of murder in an Ireland thankfully past.
Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist