The pastoral image of rural Ireland is roasted over a slow fire in this inventive black comedy, a 1990 novel by the Irish author of the 2002 critical success At Swim, Two Boys.
Protagonist O’Leary Montagu is a man who’s forgotten himself, after being nearly killed by a hit-and-run driver and having in effect been “born at the age of twenty-five” or thereabouts. We meet O’Leary as he’s traveling by train to the village of Kilbrack, memorialized in his favorite book, Ill Fares the Land, a memoir of its author Nancy Valentine’s idyllic childhood there. The book’s plaintive conclusion had led O’Leary to expect a ghost town; instead, he finds a reasonably bustling hamlet still occupied by Valentine’s characters. Prominent among them are an intemperate pharmacist, a delusional spinster tavernkeeper, middle-aged unmarried male and female siblings, and widowed Charity Cuthbert, who hopes to prevent her beautiful, headstrong daughter Livia from becoming a nun by marrying the wicked girl off—even if it’s to maimed, addlepated O’Leary. We sense that our hero’s hopes to write Nancy Valentine’s biography may go for naught with the introduction of Mrs. Cuthbert’s distant cousin, elderly recluse Valentine Brack, who lives alone with his dog Nancy and compulsively scribbles tales of his disappointing life and times intended to prove his morose assertion that “History ends with me.” O’Neill mixes these raffish elements expertly (throwing in for good measure a cupiditous Monsignor who’s after Charity Cuthbert’s property) in a roiling narrative that grows in depth and complexity even as its characters’ antics maintain its comic momentum. And there are hints of the Joycean dimensions of O’Neill’s later novel in the sure touch with which he makes the bewildered O’Leary a humble image of the wanderer reclaiming his history, the writer grappling with his material, and the son seeking his father.
O’Neill again proves himself one of Ireland’s finest writer.