Nothing on Earth: a kind of ghost story on a ghost estate
Conor O’Callaghan’s novel seems to explores the position of the priest in Irish society. There are obvious comparisons to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw
Ingrid Bergman and Heywood Morse in The Turn of the Screw. Photograph: Getty Images
Nothing on Earth is a kind of a ghost story, but not in the obvious way. The novel is set on a ghost estate – a physical location that we have become familiar with over the past decade. But O’Callaghan turns it into a metaphor, and then like all great fiction, he pursues the metaphor to its logical conclusion. In this novel, the ghost estate is haunting and haunted. It becomes a liminal space into which and from where people disappear, without explanation. The place literally swallows them. And all that is left are vague ghostly impressions.
But the novel, as in all good ghost stories, is also about a state of mind, in particular the state of mind of the person who tells us his part of the story
But the novel, as in all good ghost stories, is also about a state of mind, in particular the state of mind of the person who tells us his part of the story. The first-person narrator in Nothing on Earth is crucial to the reading of the novel. At first we don’t know who this “I” is. It is only as we read on that we realise the significance of his position. When we learn that, it forces us to re-evaluate the entire narrative in the light of our new knowledge. The novel is as much about this unnamed narrator’s perceptions as it is about the confusingly named characters who move in – and out – of the ghostly ghost estate.
This priest manifests all our anxieties and suspicions about the Catholic clergy in the light of the sexual abuse scandals
In that, there are obvious comparisons to be made with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a chilling novella written late in James’s career. The narrator is a young woman, a parson’s daughter (an important detail), who is engaged as a governess in a remote English country house. Isolated and alone, and in a precarious emotional state, she comes to believe that the two children she is caring for are in communication with evil spirits. These come in the shape of two former employees of the house, Quint, a valet, and Miss Jessell, a governess, who have been sacked because their illicit sexual relationship has been discovered by their employers.
We see the events through the governess’s eyes. So as readers, we end up wondering is the governess mad? Are the “ghosts” of Quint and Jessell real presences? If they are, then her struggle is one of good against evil as she attempts to “save” her charges from dark, sexual, and possibly Satanic forces. If they’re illusions, then we are seeing a disturbing manifestation of her interior state, suggesting a suppressed sexual hysteria. So we, as readers, have to make a judgement call.
As critic Brad Leithauser has put it: “The reader in effect becomes a jury of one. He or she must determine the governess’s guilt or innocence.”
Likewise with the priest at the centre of Nothing on Earth, Conor O’Callaghan is asking us – should we believe him? Here is what we know. He is visited by a young distressed girl whose family, residents of the local ghost estate, have all mysteriously disappeared over a long, and untypically hot Irish summer. The night she arrives, the weather suddenly breaks so the pair – middle-aged cleric and runaway child – are trapped inside the priest’s house while the rain drums violently outside. It is as if they are alone in the world, once parched and now drenched. He is charged as a responsible adult with looking after her overnight while the authorities try to place her.
The girl is presented as both helpless and strangely powerful, needy and self-contained, childish and sexually precocious, victim and agent. We see the priest struggling with his own sexually ambiguous feelings as he realises the optics of his situation – a middle-aged cleric left alone with a vulnerable charge.
So is he, like the governess in James’ classic, in the grip of an existential crisis, trying to maintain his position as pastoral carer without compromising his vocation? Or is he working out an internal sexual drama where he draws close to, then withdraws from his own sexual urges? Does the girl really exist or is she a succubus, a phantom of his suppressed sexual desires? Are the events that unfold a symptom of his inner turmoil or the cause of his breakdown? Or is his narrative, told in retrospect, an attempt to reshape the crisis that precipitated his disintegration?
It seems to me that Nothing on Earth, among other tropes, explores the position of the priest in Irish society. This priest manifests all our anxieties and suspicions about the Catholic clergy in the light of the sexual abuse scandals. Is he a “good” priest? Or is he a sexual predator? Is he well-intentioned but misunderstood? – “I will not be the man they want me to be. I will not wear their scapegoat’s crown of thorns.” – Or is he in such deep denial that he has manufactured an elaborate fictional edifice to hide an unspecified guilt? “So I wrote what I did see, what I know I heard.”
Should we trust him, O’Callaghan seems to be asking. Should we trust any priest?
The atmosphere of this novel – that strange tropical weather, the bleak and banal world of mini-marts, people-carriers, and builders’ Portakabins like the altered props in a convincing dream – is eerily persistent. Perhaps because it’s the only certainty in the narrative. Almost everything else in this novel begs a question. The only mystery that’s solved – and most of the narrative strands in the novel are determinedly not resolved – is that the narrator is a priest and that by the end of the novel he is a broken man. But by what?
That’s where the reader comes in.
Mary Morrissy is a novelist and short story writer; her latest collection, Prosperity Drive, has just been released in paperback.
Eileen Battersby interviews Conor O’Callaghan at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin’s Parnell Square on Wednesday, April 26th, at 7.30pm. It will be available as a podcast on April 30th. Nothing on Earth was released in paperback last month by Black Swan Ireland, priced £7.99. However, it can be purchased for only €4.99 if bought with a copy of The Irish Times in any branch of Eason until April 14th