Hapless Johnsey Cunliffe lurches through life in contemporary Ireland, experiencing the deaths of his parents and facing an uncertain future.
Ryan structures the novel in 12 chapters, each set in a different month and collectively taking us through a calendar year in Johnsey’s life. Most months start with a short reminiscence about his late father, who had lots of homely wisdom and observations about the changing seasons. Johnsey has a dead-end job at a local co-op, loading supplies and working at the sufferance of Packie Collins, who hired him as a favor but rails against his general uselessness. To make life even worse, on the way home from work each day, Johnsey is tormented by Eugene Penrose and his thug friends. Life begins to change for Johnsey in February when his mother dies, and in April (after all, the cruelest month), Eugene viciously attacks Johnsey, so much so that he lands in the hospital for a period of several weeks, blind and with broken bones. There, he meets a nurse he at first knows only as “Lovely Voice” and a fellow patient called Mumbly Dave, whose jaw has been temporarily wired shut. These two new acquaintances have a profound effect on Johnsey’s life, even after he recovers his sight and gets out of the hospital. He finds out the nurse’s name is Siobhán, and she begins to visit him (as does Mumbly Dave) at his home. The local council’s change in zoning laws makes the poor farm Johnsey inherited extremely valuable, and Mumbly Dave and Siobhán begin to feud over the most appropriate disposition of Johnsey’s property.
Cunningly written, the novel gives us a glimpse into the underside of modern Irish life.