Nothing On Earth
By Conor O’Callaghan
(Transworld, €16.99 p/b)
A ghost estate in the middle of nowhere; an unreliable narrator in the shape of a priest under suspicion: these are the standard themes of post-boom, post-clerical child abuse Ireland, out of which poet Conor O’Callaghan, whose debut novel this is, has woven something quite extraordinary.
During a sweltering summer – the hottest May on record – a makeshift family move into the show house on a far-from-finished estate, on a rent-to-by (as opposed to buy-to-let) basis they agree with dodgy builder Flood. There’s Paul, who cycles everyday to his nearby computer software factory job; his partner (are they married?) Helen; her sister Martina (it transpires that they are twins), who goes everywhere they go; and Paul and Helen’s twelve-year-old daughter, also named Helen (or is she?), otherwise referred to as ‘The Girl’. They are recently returned emigrants, from Germany. The girl calls Helen Mutti, her English is stilted, with ‘… a sort of freeze-dried quality…as if her every phrase had only just been taken out of the vacuum packing it had lain in for years, and was found to be almost too well preserved.’ Their only neighbours are the elderly Harry and Sheila. Marcus, Flood’s nephew, turns up of an evening as night watchman. Martina takes to slipping out, keeping him company in his portacabin, until he knocks off at 6am. Then, one by one, over the course of that long hot summer, each of the adults goes missing.
The previous sentence hardly counts as a spoiler, given the noncommittal way information is slowly and insubstantially revealed in this radically enigmatic text. Because the girl turns up distraught at the door of the priest, in the opening pages, both terrified and terrifying, telling him ‘My papa is gone too’, we are already prepared for the worst. Yet there is worse to come. Everything is suffused with an air of dread and impending doom. The glancing early reference to Kubrick’s The Shining is an apt signpost.
Most of the narrative concerning the domestic relations of the family is based on what the girl tells the priest that evening, but is he to be trusted? He doesn’t even seem to trust himself, and already feels guilty as soon as the girl enters his orbit. He has previously made an effort to call on the house, at Sheila’s behest after the mother’s disappearance, but is conscious only of his own marginality and superfluousness. ‘They were tomorrow’s young, with their worldwide webs and their several languages. The last thing they wanted was yesterday’s man on their doorstep, preaching ancient, hollow words. They weren’t part of the congregation.’ Yet he seems to be a decent man, even if the police are sceptical.
After Helen vanishes, Martina leaves the factory to look after the girl. They sunbathe topless everyday, as if on a mission, in the backgarden. When Martina too is not to be found, Paul neglects to report it, not wanting to bring any more attention on himself and his daughter. They go for a macabre dinner at the house of Slattery and his wife Hazel, the local squire (his fortune apparently made in dog food) who sold the land to Flood (now absconded to Portugal). Then Paul is made redundant, and bills go unpaid. Water and electricity are cut off. Then he dematerialises too.
In twenty-odd years of reviewing, this has been one of the most difficult to write, because it is hard to convey adequately the unsettling atmosphere the novel creates. The nearest correlatives would be: early Ian McEwan, particularly The Cement Garden; Neil Jordan’s The Dream of a Beast; John Banville’s The Newton Letter; or some of the late J. G. Ballard’s suburban dystopias. While it certainly has antecedents in Gothic literature, its contemporaneity makes it feel almost sui generis. Like many great works, it could so easily have all gone wrong if it hadn’t been done exactly right. All that can be done is to give it the highest recommendation: read it, and find out for yourself.