Paul Lynch’s haunting and poetic Great Famine novel
Grace review: Lynch’s third novel hints at future greatness despite lapses into pretentiousness
Paul Lynch: admirable skills. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
When starved, the body becomes hyperaware of its smallest facets, or so Paul Lynch suggests in his haunting and poetic third novel, Grace, which takes place over the years of the Great Famine.
“My own blood is trickling over the rocks of my bones,” the eponymous character, a teenage girl, feels at one of many points of desperation. When starvation overtakes a substantial segment of a country, in this case, this horrific state also ostracises the individual as an intense and strictly personal need to survive takes hold. Any sense of the social realm or communal responsibility is eliminated; customs like opening doors to those knocking are ignored, and even the ability to determine “who is and who isn’t” disintegrates. Every person becomes a potential threat – and, as a last resort, flesh that could sustain you just a bit longer. Every noise – even silence – becomes suspicious. Gazes dominate the narrative, too, as the worry of who might be watching you steal food, commit any other crime to stay alive, or supposedly tarnish the street with your malnourished appearance should strike many readers as uncomfortably familiar as surveillance states enlarge their powers.
Grace begins the novel as a 14-year-old girl. In the opening scene, her mother violently drags her outside to “the killing stump” where she shears her daughter’s hair as a crude means of “transforming” her into a member of the opposite sex. A rare supper with meat follows before Grace is sent off to keep her from a lecherous stepfather, thrusting her into an apocalyptic environment. Each encounter in the roving bildungsroman marks another rebirth on a seemingly endless road filled with people “who look like they are losing both their inwardness and outwardness” and those who have “gone past want to a point that is longing narrowed down to the forgetting of all else”.
A dour journey
Grace joins cattle-drive and road-building crews; she is welcomed by a predatory and disturbing religious leader; her first period destroys the illusion of her disguise to those who catch a glimpse of red; her younger brother, Colly, drowns and assumes a ghostly presence inside her mind. This is a dour journey, even with the latter’s crude and often humorous interjections (he is, after all, still dead).
Grace is twice asked by men “What are you?” It’s an astute question and one she cannot answer because, possibly more than anything over these years, she remains confused about her sense of self. In addition to internalising Colly, which effectively splits her into two people, her age and performance as male places her on a path from girl to boy to girl-boy to woman, with various other selves both self-made and imposed on her. These are problematic distinctions at any time, puberty especially, but they are made absurd when a person hardly knows whether she is living or so near death that “living” no longer makes sense as a descriptor.
Furthermore, fixity and clarity are quickly evacuated of meaning as Lynch fuses dreams, memory, myth and rumour with reality in a way that makes his story take place in an Ireland at a particular moment but also in a kind of no-place, outside time altogether.
Need for restraint
There are hints at Cormac McCarthy and Faulkner, but Lynch should restrain himself. He ruins an elliptical passage featuring Grace coming across a dead body (“her mind stepping back before her body is able”) by explicitly stating at the end that “she knows now this smell of death is a person” – a fact that he already made all too clear. Throughout, this broken world is represented in broken syntax that occasionally excises subject, verb, and articles from sentences (“Hears when the woman speaks a knot twisting in the cords of her throat”; “No more the men upon him. No more the moon”); he abandons this style, however, at a climactic and horrifying point in favour of poorly channelling Beckett followed by a few pitch-black pages, all of which mean little beyond pretension. Shortening the novel by one-third also would have been wise.
An image such as “an entire family hilled together with their belongings on a passing cart, rooted together in silence like some old tree gone to wither” or phrase as novel as that “dumb-tongued feeling that has settled inside her” evince Lynch’s admirable skills. Unlike the “novelese” favoured by too many contemporary writers, these are sentences worth reading slowly. Though only suggesting the possibility of future greatness with Grace, Lynch has given us poignant glimpses of the human body’s limits, that peculiar messiness of identity, and what happens when parts of a society fail to help, or even acknowledge, those in need.