Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan: an original story, brilliantly told
Conor O’Callaghan stamps his authority on this low-key but pitch-perfect novel, one of most impressive pieces of Irish fiction since Neil Jordan’s The Dream of a Beast in 1983
A man sets out to tell a story. It could be true. It may be a pack of lies. Who knows? He appears to be all too well aware of the nature of blame and the way in which it tends to stick. Blame preoccupies him far more than guilt; as is widely known: “After a certain age, a man has to work hard to look trustworthy.” But none of that matters, the narrator does present the facts and they certainly keep one guessing.
A young couple move into a vacant show house on what appears to be an abandoned housing estate somewhere in Ireland. They have a daughter. The man is employed, unhappily. The woman’s twin sister is also with them; it’s always been like that. Wherever the couple have gone, the sister has come along. Although Paul “never seemed to notice anything he didn’t have to”, the constant presence of his wife’s sister obviously bothers him and for an interesting array of possible reasons.
Freakish summer heat is adding to the tension. It’s not ideal, setting up temporary home in a deserted estate and being an open target for the impromptu visitations from Flood, the shifty developer who has a spy on site. His name is Marcus, Flood’s young nephew. “Marcus will be up there from six every night.” Flood looked mortified by the name. “Don’t know where they got Marcus from.” The youth arrives each evening on his bike, wearing a dayglow vest, prepared to spend the hours in what is described as a “dinky caravan”.
Conor O’Callaghan immediately stamps his authority on this extraordinary, low-key and pitch perfect novel and maintains effortless control in what is one of the most impressive pieces of Irish fiction writing since Neil Jordan’s The Dream of a Beast in 1983.
The two grown sisters are each more lost than the other, if in contrasting ways. Helen, which may be the name of the mother of the child – nothing is certain – is bewildered by life. Her sister Martina is equally aimless if slightly better at getting what she thinks she wants. Paul endures. The cost of it all is obvious on the face and, ultimately, the body of the strange little girl who began her life speaking one language and is now suspended somewhere between it and English. When her mother decides against visiting some new acquaintances, because she is aware that she and her little girl don’t “look quite the ticket”, the child is baffled. The woman “often had to explain phrases to her daughter. She often forgot that the girl had been speaking another language for two-thirds of her life.”
In the setting of dust, building-site debris, doubt and various complications, the characters circle each other. The sisters share a messy history and apparently dubious reputations. Every encounter brings its individual blend of embarrassment and menace. “Flood called the summer powerful. He kept saying that and wiping one hand around the nape of his neck and squinting at the sky. The summer was powerful, and there was no word of it letting up. Flood had a way of sniggering to himself, after the fact, as if he could hear how old-fashioned what he had said sounded.”
Characterisation is among O’Callaghan’s many talents and each of the central players is vividly described while avoiding caricature. One may feel familiar with the type yet the individuals are fully formed and the various exchanges gather authenticity from sharp, often funny dialogue, particularly Paul’s exasperation. So good is the writing that this novel has the potential to also succeed on the stage or as a screenplay. When some Poles, or at least Paul thinks they may be Poles, move into one of the empty houses, he attempts to introduce himself. He is greeted by a man who “looked askance at him and then said, ‘No thank you’, like those words were his only learned phrase”. Paul laughs and tries again, holding out his hand to be shaken. Instead he receives another “No, thank you” as the door closes.
Marcus, the gormless young watchman, provides some distraction for Martina, if not enough. Nor does his security prove particularly effective. Strange noises, running water, movement, destroy any efforts to sleep. “Things disappeared. The cement mixer disappeared. A stack of breeze blocks diminished, almost imperceptibly, until there was nothing where it had been.” Yet there is more, a shocking sequence of disappearances. Water rationing is imposed, before the mains supply dries up completely. The various inhabitants of the estate trudge off to the supermarket “and wheel a trolley full of translucent litres . . . and just leave each trolley to die a slow death up the site”.
Throughout the narrative, which moves from first to third person and then back to a narrator who may or may not be reliable, O’Callaghan is constructing a JG Ballard-like exterior wasteland patrolled by the nosy local businessman on his quad bike, to complement the desolation going on indoors and in the minds of some of the characters. While Paul’s bewilderment increases, so do the Poles, if they are Poles, increase and multiply. They have loud parties. When he marches over to complain, there is nobody there. All he sees is his own reflection.
Simple but sophisticated
Nothing on Earth is simple and direct; complex and sophisticated. The language is deliberately plain. The vocabulary is strictly disciplined. O’Callaghan, a published poet, is unafraid of repetition and is aware of how effective it can be. The tone is deadpan with flashes of humour such as the description of a stilted dinner party and the mindless sunbathing. Above all Nothing on Earth glories in the elusive quality evident in the best fiction, it is utterly ambivalent. In an atmosphere of heat haze, everything that was previously unravelled further falls asunder.
“There are moments when the empty space of a room takes on the shape of one who must have stood there and who perhaps should still be there. In those moments, that space is like a cavity, an entrance even. It hangs heavy with absence. Its translucence collects, magnifies. Everything the other side of it appears minutely out of proportion with everything else outside its frame. It acquires a quality. There is no other word for it. The quality the empty space acquires is that of a lake’s surface or of some lead-based mirror glass.”
Many writers of virtuoso prose have nothing to say; equally novels based on important events are often written in dull, laboured prose. Conor O’Callaghan has without pretence of affection or straining for effect, told an original story, and brilliantly, in plain prose which does shimmer in shade and nuance. The bleak ghost estate in all its unfinished bleakness, to the last pile of rubble and lone dusty weed, is as clear as the relentless daylight illuminating the mess. Little is spelt out, nothing is given away. Mystery drives the narrative. There is also the calm menace reminiscent of William Trevor. Paul tries on a gas mask owned by his host, the businessman, who collects war memorabilia and who also sold the land on which the doomed estate was built. As he tries to drink his wine while wearing the mask “for a joke” it quickly goes very wrong. He panics. It proves almost symbolic. This adroit, uncompromising novel leaves questions unanswered and won’t easily release its hold.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent