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by Ruth Gilligan

Pub Date: Nov. 10th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-947793-78-1
Publisher: Tin House

A contemplative coming-of-age thriller set against a modernizing Ireland.

Gilligan’s latest opens with the description of a photo: It's a dead man strung up by his feet like a cow. The photographer has never shown the image until now, although he believes it to be his finest work: “The Butcher,” is how he imagines it would be labeled. “County Monaghan, 1996.” The subject had belonged to a group of ritual cattle slaughters, eight men who’d roamed the countryside on foot, keeping the old customs alive for those who still believed. Then the novel skips backward in time, to 1996 and the circumstances that led to that one arresting image. It is a classic mystery format—start with the ending, then trace how we got here—but the novel is hardly a classic mystery. What unfolds instead is an understated family saga pulsing with quiet foreboding. There is a low hum of violence in the background, and the mounting threat of mad cow disease is never far away. At the story’s heart is 12-year-old Úna; the daughter of a Butcher, she yearns to carry on the tradition herself despite the supposed limitations of her gender. But there is also Úna’s mother, Grá, beautiful and lonely, haunted by the loss of her estranged sister, who left the family for the modern world. There is Fionn, a desperate dairy farmer with a dying wife trying to make good, and Fionn’s bookish son, Davey, whose penchant for the classics is his ticket out. And yet the strength here is not the richness of the characters—Úna, especially, feels generically free-spirited, a standard-issue tween literary heroine—but the richness of the world. It’s an atmospheric portrait of a country at a crossroads, moving away from the traditional ways and toward a slick new millennial future. Thoroughly lovely.

Cattle have never been so riveting.