HIMSELF : a novel
by Jess Kidd
Atria Books |US edition 2017
Hardcover: 384 pages
Genre: Fiction/Irish Mystery
ARC ebook from Netgalley in exchange
for an unbiased review.
“So what brought you here?”
I wanted a bit of peace and quiet.
Do you know on the map there’s nothing at all around you?
“It’s the arse end of beyond you’re after then?”
Mahony looks thoughtful.
Do you know? I think it is.
“Well, you found it.”
Hang on to the book tightly. Orla Sweeney’s murder in the prologue will tear your heart out. In May of 1950, an Irish teenage mother from the tiny village of Mulderrig, anxiously waits in the woods for the father of her newborn son to arrive. She hopes to obtain emotional and financial support but when he arrives, she receives a death sentence.
His first blow: the girl made no noise, her dark eyes widened. She reeled a little as she bent and put the baby down. The man stood waiting…when she was still…he wrapped her in sackcloth…He laid her in a well-made grave…He remembered that he must also claim their child or his work would not be done. [While he had dispatched the mother] the forest had hidden the infant. Great ferns had unfurled all around the child, tree roots had surrounded him, and ivy had sprung up to cloak him..[s]o that…he could not find the child, however hard he searched.
The child was discovered in the woods and someone from the village mysteriously drove to Dublin, placing him at the front door of the St. Anthony Orphanage cocooned in a basket like baby Moses. His life at St. Anthony’s was smeared by the stigma of his illegitimate birth. Sister Veronica, the bane of his existence, made sure he realized that he was a stain on humanity. He was given the name of Mahony.
There was one ray of sunshine in his life – Sister Mary Margaret. This kindly nun confided to him the true nature of his arrival including the fact that there was a letter with him in the basket; a fact that Sister Veronica rebuked. Sadly, Sister Mary Margaret died when he was 7. When she appeared before him holding her deadly cancerous tumor in her hands, he would forever have one foot in the world of the living and the dead. This ability to see the dead as they go about their non-corporeal lives plays an important part in Mahony’s life.
Mahony, now 26 years old, is seated at a Dublin pub knocking back a pint when he is approached by a local priest. Sister Veronica has died and a letter in her possession is addressed to Mahoney. “For when the child is grown.”
Inside the envelope was a picture of a girl with a half-smile holding a blurred bundle, high and awkwardly, like found treasure…
Your name is Francis Sweeney. Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co. Mayo. This is a picture of yourself with her. For your information she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.
Pocketing the letter, Mahony heads to Mulderrig to learn what happened to his mother. What made her the curse of the town? Where did they take her? Who brought him to the Dublin orphanage? Who is this ally that warns him about the town?
When the local bus pulls up to a stop in the sleepy-eyed stillness of Mulderrig, its lone passenger, a rakishly handsome Mahony, steps down from the past to turn Mulderrig upside down. His search will shake out long buried secrets, bring threats on his life and endanger those helping him to uncover the truth. Mahony’s complicated search is alternated with a third-person narrator giving the reader Orla Sweeney’s short life story. We learn things that Mahony/Francis will never know.
Prominent characters include – the town constable, Sergeant Jack Brophy, a “strong square wall of a man…[who has a soothing affect] on the mad, the bad and the imaginative…whether off duty or on” – Tadhg Kerrigan, owner of Kerrigan’s pub, the first to greet Mahony and the first to suspect that his visit has something to do with Orla Sweeney – Mrs. Cauley, “an aging actress and brash anarchist” who arrived at the local inn, the Rathmore House, over 20 years ago and never left. She spends her final days harassing the local denizens, and Father Quinn, the local corrupt priest, in particular. She bonds with Mahony and they begin a systematic investigation to determine who was his father! And who was responsible for Orla’s fate.
My favorite character is Mrs. Cauley. She holds her head high despite rapidly declining health and failing looks. There’s a fiery spirit inside the broken body that refuses to give up. She seems to have some paranormal powers. Although she can’t see the spirits, she can sense their presence. She lives to twist the knickers on all the hypocritical and devious residents responsible for making Orla’s life so miserable and turned their backs on her in her time of need.
And as we have seen earlier, the spirits long dead float around Mahony, day and night, like long strands of gossamer. Some engage him directly and others just take up space in the story. There’s Miss Mulhearne, “a picture of respectable Irish womanhood” haunting her old school room and is surprised when she realizes that Mahony can see her. When he learns that she misses what she remembers as poetry, he finds time to join her in the closet and read some to her. Father Jim, the town’s priest and a sympathetic friend of Orla Sweeney, died mysteriously, and now haunts Mrs. Cauley’s commode. And perhaps the most important spirit, the little girl named Ida who witnessed Orla’s burial and was killed as she fled. Her appearances to Mahony provide clues to his mother’s demise.
Lest I have given the impression that the story is leprechauns and scatter brained ghosts, the author has created a malevolent atmosphere throughout the book and there are several scenes of violence and brutality. Woman’s rights advocates will gnash their teeth. Life was pretty rough for women in the 1970s. I know. I was there. But women in this little village suffered a religion and moral backlash that was horrible.
Jess Kidd, as a debut author, has undoubtedly a highly developed creative mind. The story is stuffed with unique characters both living and dead. I can’t shake the image of Mrs. Cauley’s ghostly suitor “drop[ping] his underwear and hopscotch[ing] down the garden path, his bare arse winking in the early morning light.”
Without question Kidd knows County Mayo intimately and her writing style lifts the Irish brogue off the page. When Mahony first walks into Kerrigan’s pub, Tadhg greets him with “All right so?” And Mahony answers, “I’m grand.” She’s a “right eejit altogether.” A word of warning to the delicate, words that are most certainly profane in our culture are natural part of local discourse. Their favorite adjective is f***. Here’s a tamer use of that word with a twist. When Mahony asks the ghostly seven year-old Ida her name, she responds with “how the feck should I know?”
There’s something wobbly about the way the story is crafted. The story feels forced or directed by the author, not dictated by the characters. At times, strangely placed vignettes intrude into an important story line. In one instance, Mahony learns important facts about his mother and while fleshing out the details, the author has Johnnie, Mrs. Cauley’s ghostly womanizer, sitting naked next to him. That was strange enough but the author then has Johnnie stands and “saunters to the nearby flower bed scratching his flute“. The juxtaposition of Johnnies’ itchy flute and Orla’s murdered body was downright weird.
All said, I enjoyed the book. It was grand! Hopefully future works will reduce the number of side stories and useless characters concentrating on deeper coverage of the prime themes. Looking forward to the next book.