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Ghost Mountain by Rónán Hession: Offbeat, observational humour as a mountain rises out of nowhere

The characters’ efforts to integrate the new mountain into their worldview serve, symbolically, as an attempt to control their own lives

Ghost Mountain
Ghost Mountain
Author: Rónán Hession
ISBN-13: 978-1915693136
Publisher: Bluemoose Books
Guideline Price: £18

One day a mountain appears out of nowhere. It is, quite suddenly, just there (though naturally some people claim it was always there). Its appearance is the catalyst for mild ontological shock, which ripples through the local community, among them an artist, a drunk, a cartographer, and a young married couple named Ocho and Ruth. All these lives and relationships are changed by this instance of spontaneous tectonics, many in ways which they could never have predicted.

Despite this almost comic-book premise, Ghost Mountain is a reflective novel in keeping with the “uncomplicated friendship” of Hession’s 2019 debut Leonard and Hungry Paul, as well as with the depiction of community in his football-focused follow-up Panenka (2021). Though this is not to say that Ghost Mountain is a retread. Far from it. There are advancements here, and, daringly, they are often askew from the broad thrust of contemporary literary fiction. The book has an oblique relationship too to the speculative genres, and, in a novel where totemic objects such as jaw bones and theodolites have an almost mystical quality, considering how Ghost Mountain does and does not follow the patterns of, say, westernised magical realism might be a worthwhile project for someone.

Indeed, Hession’s choice to depict the novel’s many unlikely liaisons and outlandish deaths – not always unconnected – as at least half farce allows him to double down on the surreal. The first third of Ghost Mountain in particular is reminiscent of Murakami before he became big or Beckett after he became an adjective. For all of which, Hession never loses the winning rhythm of his own language and perspective in a story structured as a series of vignettes about those living in the physical and emotional shadow of the new prominence. As with Leonard and Hungry Paul and Panenka, the style he adopts is not that of Literature-with-a-Capital-L. It is less assuming than that. It is the voice of a gifted storyteller drawing us into a tapestry of tales. The prose here exhibits musicality – befitting Hession’s alter ego as songwriter Mumblin’ Deaf Ro – and, crucially, his offbeat, observational humour is a constant presence (with one repeated joke about bricks crashing through windows never growing old).

At the centre of all this, of course, lies Ghost Mountain itself, a clever device carefully crafted to mean different things to different people. Ruth, for instance, becomes fixated upon the mountain whereas Ocho fails to understand her obsession with it. The artist struggles to paint it while the hubristic cartographer, seeing in it an opportunity for literal and figurative elevation, fails to realise how it may destroy him. Some regard the mountain as a challenge, some an obstacle, and for some “it didn’t matter and it didn’t not matter”. Readers may find in it a metaphor for ... climate change? For purgatory? Meanwhile for literary critics, the most fun demographic, it evokes the Hyperobjects of Timothy Morton or the intrusion narratives described by Farah Mendlesohn in Rhetorics of Fantasy.


Some characters even look for a spiritual meaning in the mountain. Those who walk around it find themselves transformed by the experience, and “with each step they absorbed something new and this something new changed them in subtle ways”. Some dismiss it as merely a large hill, yet always the mountain “caused things but was never affected by them”. It is the ultimate empty signifier and early stretches of Ghost Mountain spend much time attempting to unpack its potential meaning. Then, just as you’re afraid the book is becoming repetitive, Hession delivers a series of emotional sucker punches that turn things upside down. Readers of his previous work will recognise the resulting quirkiness-to-poignancy whiplash.

It is at this point that Ghost Mountain becomes so much more than its peculiar hook. Grief, longing and questions of connection begin to colour an already rich palette, and negotiating these as much as the narrative rupture represented by the mountain becomes the throughline of the book’s latter sections. Hession grants his readers the privilege of watching his characters grow in response to these trials over long stretches of time, with their efforts to integrate the new mountain into their worldview serving, symbolically, as an attempt to control their own lives.

Some succeed at this, some fail, but the journeys we accompany them on are moving and hilarious in equal measure. With Ghost Mountain, Rónán Hession has created something different. It is certainly a stranger book that his previous work, but in that lies its unique charm. We are very lucky that there are novels like this being written in Ireland today.