A gifted Irish author offers another take on his country’s Great Famine through the eyes of a teenage girl as she travels through a land wracked by want.
When a blight hits the potato harvest of 1845, a pregnant widow with four children seeks to spare her 14-year-old daughter, Grace, from hunger, maybe, but certainly from the appetites of her own insatiable lover. She cuts the girl’s hair, dresses her as a boy, and sends her off to seek work. Grace is soon joined by her irrepressible brother Colly, 12, who gives her a few lessons in maleness. Their time together is cut short when he is swept away in a teeming river as they try to salvage a drowned sheep. She lucks into work helping to herd cows, but betrayal and murder await down the drovers’ path. She joins a road crew, but her first period surprises and unmasks her, stirring unwanted interest. A fellow worker saves her from would-be rapists and travels with her on adventures that seem to cover about half of Ireland by foot. Their unmeasurable route is through deepening despair and the hell beyond mere hunger—“past want to a point that is longing narrowed down to the forgetting of all else”—and the descent into crime and then a blackness: indeed, four Sterne-like blank black pages to signify perhaps more than pen can write, even one as eloquent as Lynch’s (The Black Snow, 2015, etc.). Grace walks under “a sky of old cloth and the sun stained upon it.” Elsewhere, “the air is stitched with insects.” And sometimes Lynch seems to move beyond normal language: “A soul being loosened from a whin is shaped like a shout” (whin is gorse and the context is dead souls at dusk).
This is a writer who wrenches beauty even from the horror that makes a starving girl think her “blood is trickling over the rocks of my bones.”