As Margaret Atwood wrote in The Blind Assassin, “It’s the end of the world every day, for someone.” When a great many people are dead and dying in horrific circumstances in fiction, settings and plots are usually post-apocalyptic: some hideous dystopian future caused by climate change, war or disease, with a likelihood ranging from the probable to Stephen King. Paul Lynch’s beautiful and flawed third novel, Grace, is ostensibly set in Ireland during the worst years of the Great Famine, yet it’s less traditional historical fiction and more end-of-the-world survival story. Lynch’s 1840s Ireland is a true nightmare with real zombies, and the eponymous hero is haunted, believably, by several ghosts for almost the whole novel. This is historical horror; real dystopia as it actually happened.
The story begins with 14-year-old Grace living with her mother, Sarah, and a brood of younger siblings near Blackmountain, in rural Ireland. Both winter and the famine are just beginning and without warning, her mother pulls Grace awake and cuts off her long hair, then sends her off dressed as a boy to fend for herself. She’s petrified and bereft and utterly unprepared for the world, but it’s easy to understand Sarah’s motivation. On her own and mobile, Grace’s chances of survival may well be better – and she’d also begun to attract the attention of Boggs, the father of some of her siblings. After some toing and froing, her brother, 12-year-old Colly, goes with her. He’s chirpy and irreverent, with an adolescent’s enthusiasm and humour. It’d be grim-going without him.
More than a million people died in the Great Famine, yet even under such life-and-death pressure, Lynch’s plot never really works as a story because of the meandering lack of structure and Grace’s passivity. After a number of false beginnings, Grace trudges through the rain and cold, falling in with other people sometimes – notably Bart, a man with a withered arm who risks himself to protect her – but there’s no direction or urgency. The story progresses through strong set pieces – Grace living with an unhinged, paranoid woman; Grace in a gang of robbers – but they could take place in any order and there is only rarely forward momentum, despite the stakes. Grace’s encounters are random and fluky, but she’s fortunate in many ways because when she’s in big trouble, people show up in the nick of time. In one town, she is minding her own business, one more starving boy among a sea of starving boys, when a stranger waves at her, mistaking her for the son of a friend who’s been employed to help move cattle bought cheaply by a profiteer. That adventure ends badly, but through no action of hers.
Another time, relief committeemen who knock on the door of the cabin she’s appropriated tell her about a road-building gang paying seven pence a day within walkable distance, so off she goes to labour. It’s busywork, achieving nothing but justifying the meagre aid, and this interlude ends also because events overtake her.
Finding language to convey this unimaginable suffering is a difficult task that Lynch tackles with ambition. His choice of voice is dense, imaginative and convoluted. This makes thematic sense, because nothing in dystopia should be the same as in the normal world. Certainly lyrical elegance wouldn’t belong here. The voice is mostly successful and when it works, the rhetorical language, neologisms and verbing brings to mind the unprecedented circumstances.
Their ghost-selves in the window have stopped to watch the occupants of an eating shop, the certain angle of shoulders hunched over tables, hands forking and cutting, wiping, fisting for a cough, curling to bring mugs to mouths, talking through half-chewed food, a huge fire roaring at the room.
All too often, though, the sweat behind each worked-over sentence is palpable and the contorted, clever language seems designed to draw attention to the skill of the writer at the expense of Grace herself.
As the grip of the famine deepens, Grace’s hold on her mind and her humanity loosens. The same happens to all the starving she meets; everyone becomes wraiths and monsters. Hunger leaves behind desperate animals without any kind of morals, prey to false gods, capable of any depravity. Both trauma and the biochemical changes that happen in starvation explain the logic behind Grace’s ghosts, but Lynch makes it seem a natural continuum in a land long haunted by fairy pookas. This is where the novel excels, this grey world of Lynch’s imaginings on the border between life and death. The climax is unspeakably awful and Lynch handles it superbly: a few pages of stream of consciousness rationed into single thoughts, followed by empty black pages. There are no words possible, so Grace says none.
“Tell me Colly, what is real and not real? What is natural and unnatural?” Grace asks her brother at one point. This lack of certainty pervades the novel, and it’s one of its strengths. Grace’s dreams are as heavy and as haunted as her waking hours, and the final scenes, particularly, seem unlikely and set in a different world, so perhaps they aren’t meant as more than the last thoughts of an oxygen-starved brain. After a ritual death, Grace emerges from child to woman and gains some kind of understanding about the way the world works. Lynch writes: “She understands now that everything in her life until now has been evil, for how can you explain so much blight and hunger and plague as anything but reckoning?” The word “grace” has two meanings here: as a name, and also the state of having the favour of God. During the Great Famine, Ireland was truly godforsaken and Grace is less the story of one girl and more of one famine amid the many throughout the ages.
Fiction often asks the question: what makes us human? Lynch’s answer is simplistic but elemental: a bowl of soup and a heel of bread. LS
Oneworld, 368pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 2, 2017 as "Paul Lynch, Grace". Subscribe here.