What’s the Book About?
1950. A teenage girl is brutally murdered in a forest. But, somehow, her baby survives.
1976. A mysterious and charming young man returns to the remote coastal village of Mulderrig, seeking answers about the mother who, it was said, had abandoned him on the steps of a Dublin orphanage.
With the help of its oldest and most eccentric inhabitant, he will force the village to give up its ghosts. Nothing, not even the dead, can stay buried forever.
On the face of it, not my normal read as I tend to steer clear of the supernatural. However, there was something about this book that drew me. The prologue did it’s best to send me scuttling with a shocking opening but I persevered, and I was so glad I did, because this book is a gem.
Once Mahoney made his appearance, strolling into town with his long hair, loon pants and handsome charm, and it was clear that his appearance would unsettle more than the hormones of the majority of the female population. But he wasn’t looking for love, or even a passing dalliance although if it happened …
Mahoney was in Mulderrig for answers. Brought up by the nuns in a Dublin orphanage he’d been told in no uncertain terms he was unloved and unwanted, abandoned by a feckless mother. But a letter he’s given when he’s 26 reveals a different story, he was from Mulderrig Co. Mayo, he was called Francis Sweeney and his mother, Orla had loved him – past tense. So, he’s here to find out what the village knows and more importantly what happened to his mother.
He finds himself staying at Rathmore House, a shadow of its former premium hotel self, along with its other long term guest Mrs Cauley. Mrs Cauley is an aging actress, also a shadow of her former self but living with the belief she was one of the greatest actresses of her age at the Abbey theatre. Her intimidating, pernickety demeanour is a barrier to most people but not Mahoney. They both see something in each other that draws them to each other. The other thing they both see are ghosts. They are not the chain rattling ghouls of horror stories, but the faded shadows of people who have shared the spaces they find themselves in. They watch, mutter, guide and protect, mostly with benevolence. There is nothing to induce sleepless nights here, in fact it might just make that dark shadow in the corner less of a concern.
Mahoney and Mrs Cauley are determined to find out what happened to Orla and in the process discover who Mahoney’s father was/is – not easy given the number of candidates. Also not easy because certain people don’t want the truth to be revealed, somebody in the village knows exactly what happened to Orla because they were responsible for her disappearance.
I’ve been visiting Ireland since the early 1980’s – not that far away from Mahoney’s 1976 timeline and I was transported into a believable, authentic, backwater town in the wilds of Mayo. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, feuds go back for decades, and secrets are preserved for decades. Mammies will gossip between themselves, Daddies will drink in the bar, but what happens in Mulderrig, stays in Mulderrig.
The book is inhabited by some big characters, not always likeable and possibly stereotypical at times, but then stereotypes exist for a reason, they universally represent a type that we recognise and so this is not meant as a negative comment. It’s a book that doesn’t shy away from the darker side of people’s natures and actions so it can at times be an uncomfortable read, but life can also be uncomfortable. Yet, despite the darkness there is an earthy humour that permeates the book. What is never far away is the sense of the Ireland of myth and magic, the landscape and the surroundings are as much a character in the book, as the flesh and blood characters, and the ethereal departed. It’s a place where it isn’t hard to imagine that there is a thin veil between this world and the next.
It’s a book that I found absolutely bewitching. What held me captive was not just the unfolding mystery of what happened to Orla, but the almost fairy tale quality of the writing. The language is lyrical, poetic, humorous, earthy and totally beguiling. It is a literary tour de force.
I have had this title sitting on my Kindle since 2016, courtesy of Netgalley, so although it’s been a long time in the waiting, hopefully this review will be accepted in the spirit of better late than never.
About the Author
Jess Kidd was brought up in London as part of a large family from county Mayo and has been praised for her unique fictional voice. Her debut, Himself, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards in 2016. She won the Costa Short Story Award the same year. Her second novel, The Hoarder (published as Mr. Flood’s Last Resort in the U.S.), was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2019. Both books were BBC Radio 2 Book Club Picks. Her latest book, the Victorian detective tale Things in Jars, has been released to critical acclaim. Jess’s work has been described as ‘Gabriel García Márquez meets The Pogues.’
Jess is currently working on her fourth novel and first children’s book Everyday Magic is out in February 2021, published by Canongate. She is also developing her own original TV projects with leading U.K. and international TV producers.