McCabe, never afraid to explore the grimmest parts of small-town Ireland, tugs the reader into an especially troubling portion of it in this novel about violation and madness.
In the early 1980s Redmond Hatch was a young man with a wife, a daughter and a steady job as a reporter at a small Irish newspaper. On assignment to cover old-fashioned ways in his hometown, he meets Ned Strange, an elderly fiddler who appears to have all the salt-of-the-earth traits that make for great feature copy. But horrific things come out of Ned’s mouth once he’s had a few—alarming suggestions about the misdeeds that Redmond’s father and uncle committed, along with jeremiads about the infidelities Ned’s wife committed, and how Ned punished her for them. Later, in London, Redmond’s career sputters and his increasingly violent temper drives his wife and child away; once he reads in the paper that Ned has died in prison, where he was sent after raping and killing a young boy, he’s off the rails. McCabe (Call Me the Breeze, 2003, etc.) deliberately makes it difficult to discern what’s fact and fiction in Redmond’s narrative, the better to evoke the mental instability that seems to swallow him whole; Redmond meets Ned in his dreams, plots to kidnap his daughter, becomes an acclaimed TV documentary director, remarries and repeatedly changes his identity. Or so he says—it becomes clear that Redmond both suffered and inflicted more damage than he initially let on. A few recurring sensory details anchor the story, like the taste of chocolate or a dampness in the air; John Martyn’s gentle folk song “May You Never” always seems to be playing, and it’s an ominous dirge by the time McCabe’s done with it. But those literary feints don’t keep the book from ultimately feeling like the deluded rants the novel’s supposed to transcend—and by the closing pages, McCabe seems to be going for shock effect.
Unremittingly bleak—provokes a reaction but ultimately feels hollow.