We Are Not In The World, by Conor O’Callaghan, Doubleday Ireland, 272 pp, ISBN: 978-1781620533
Early in We Are Not In The World, Conor O’Callaghan’s arresting second novel, Irish long-distance lorry driver Paddy fetches up in an edgeland somewhere in central France. This place may or may not be on the outskirts of Saint-Étienne, but its precise location is in any case irrelevant: indeed, the point is that this zone is painstakingly liminal, neither here nor there.
Much the same might be said of Paddy himself, and of the semblance of a life he has fashioned – or that has been fashioned for him, Paddy being by now essentially a bystander in and observer of his own existence. Since all of his life planning has failed to pay off, he has these days limited his investments, it seems, to only one specialised fund or talent: he prefers not to complete his sentences, and this linguistic limitation – or tool – functions as an appropriate metaphor for such an excruciating half-life. Now he sits with his shaven-headed daughter – a secret passenger in his lorry – in a greasy spoon edging the highway, an “out of the way dive where nobody will see us, where we can be ourselves knowing that we’ll never dine here again”.
Out of such bleak contexts and grey ingredients, O’Callaghan creates a spare and emotionally fraught story of home, homelessness and chronic unsettlement. The narrative unfolds to reveal an emotional life severed at the roots and burdened by the freight of inter-generational sadness: an upbringing in carefully unemphatic coastal landscapes between Dublin and the border; a sexually charged relationship with a mother who has lived a life equally lost and drifting; and a thrustingly successful younger brother who now owns Tír na nÓg, the family home, above a scrubby shingle beach which represents the only – albeit always ambivalently viewed – spiritual and emotional anchor Paddy has ever known.
O’Callaghan has explored such themes of home and rootlessness throughout a significant and valuable career in prose and poetry. Nothing on Earth (2017), his powerful first novel, set out the limitations of language and its inadequacy in conveying meaning in extremis; and the ability of silence and the past to make nonsense of our present lives. In his collection Seatown (1999), he writes of an allegiance to a place – once again, an unemphatic bit of east-coast land and sea – that others, seeking breathlessly the classic Irish images of Atlantic swells and breakers, would readily overlook:
If it’s just a question of water and some half-baked notion
That the Irish mind is shaped by the passionate swell of the ocean,
I align myself to a dribble of sea that’s unspectacular and flat.
Anything else would be unthinkable. It’s as simple as that.
We Are Not In The World conveys a sense of a slow, painful movement towards the same conclusion – and the same location. In a novel which leaves much undescribed, and through which dialogue runs with a Beckettian thinness and by means of allusions and in-jokes, only the setting and life of the family home is described in a way that puts flesh on bones or suggests something that might approach an imperfect love: “The name is still on the left-hand gatepost as you approach the house […] Its letters are charred into a slice of ash and varnished over. […] Conifers one side, the estuary the other.” Even here, however, specific memories are trimmed with shadow: the name of the house evokes the Irish myth of Oisín and Niamh – and the myth reminds us that home seldom offers any of us a fixed and unchanging haven.
This book, however, is no constant place of myth, of shadows and edges: we are very much in this world. The passage of Paddy’s lorry through Calais and its refugee-choked environs are described with horrifying immediacy; the history of his daughter – in flight herself from a thoroughly modern trauma – is described movingly and with rage; and the memories of a damaged but erotically charged relationship, conducted in this place and that across England, are evoked with compelling vividness. There is, in short, no lack or absence of emotions in this novel: but O’Callaghan’s approach is to strip away the fat – to permit a wide view, while at times withholding much by way of detail. We are to be kept at arm’s length, and this formal decision emphasises Paddy’s own emotional journey, as the events in his life are watched from a distance that appears safe, but that is in fact anything but.
The dénouement of the story, electrifying in the telling, offers a tentative glimpse of a possible future, a consolation, a path to safety through the shadows. But the book, thankfully, offers no glib possibility of consolation: “I’ll take a lifetime to get back,” Paddy reflects – besides which, we know what happened to Oisín when he chose to tread the path back home. In any case, one senses that Conor O’Callaghan’s purpose in writing this novel has been not to create a serviceable ending but to explore beginnings and sources: because “we want to know where things began, where they originate”, as he has remarked in an interview. The true consolation offered by this fine novel is indeed that of comprehension: of an understanding that is imperfect, partial, groped for in the darkness, and weighed down by grief – and thus deeply human.
Neil Hegarty’s latest novel is The Jewel (Head of Zeus).