Nothing on Earth, by Conor O’Callaghan, Doubleday Ireland, 192 pp, €17.50, ISBN: 978-1784161460
A distraught young girl appears on the doorstep of a man living alone, and tells him that her father has disappeared. So begins the strange, unnerving retrospective of a family with secrets, who have recently returned home after years abroad and moved into a new estate on the outskirts of a nondescript, one-street village.
When Paul and Helen, her twin sister Martina, and “the girl” discover that they are the only estate occupants – in fact, they live in the showhouse – the site owner, Flood, becomes more and more cagey about other potential buyers. Only one other prospective couple come along, and they don’t return. The atmosphere of this bleak, unpopulated landscape dominates more than anything else, becoming so pervasive and insistent it is almost the main protagonist in the story.
The anonymous new estate is eerily silent, and yet more deafening than the “millions-deep” chorus of cicadas. In fact, everything about the sounds in this very cinematic setting is extreme: too silent, or too noisy: “the volume of the telly was as far up as it would go”. There’s also the unsettling disturbance of the building debris left lying around: “rubble, cubes of foam packaging that appliances must have come in, off-cuts of yellow rubber piping and cement lumps in the shape of drums”. Unexplained presences are suggested in some writing finger-drawn on a window pane; a long-gone figure appearing fleetingly in the garden; noises from a nearby vacant house which may or may not be occupied by “Poles”.
The heatwave is revealed in the “parched muck” outside the houses. “The sun kept beating. The sun kept beating until the whole world, it felt, was dried to parchment.”
We are not even sure of the relationship of “the girl”, who has a German accent, to Helen and Paul. Is she really their daughter? Helen’s twin sister, Martina, also lives with them, and this causes conflict. There are secrets: “The sisters’ parents, going the way they did”; “All those years of skirting around the past, of her protectiveness of her sister, of keeping the girl in the dark.”
Paul and Martina go to work in the local factory. Helen remains at home with the unnamed girl. After changing her hairstyle, so she can be distinguished from her sister, Helen disappears, and aside from a few posters, there’s barely a ripple of attention about this, not even from Paul’s briefly appearing parents. Paul starts calling the girl Helen, and Martina notices, but doesn’t object, and the girl doesn’t seem to mind either. Martina and the girl spend a lot of time sunbathing, and Martina gradually introduces the girl to alcohol and the idea of going topless.
Marcus, a young guy who occupies a caravan and acts as the estate foreman, attracts Martina’s interest. Slattery and his wife Hazel, who live in a decaying big house and used to own the land the estate is built on, invite Paul and the girl to dinner. This scene is almost more strange than anything else that occurs.
The sense of a lack of water is vividly evoked, and when present, it is precious: “They sat tippling as if water were Prosecco.” Pipes from the attic tank “made occasional whale music”. And “washing in his daughter’s water didn’t bother Paul”.
There are no cars on the road, or people on the street, “as if the whole world was observing a siesta”. The weather veers from weeks of extreme heat to a final deluge. Although the word “eejits” is mentioned once, as well as hurling, the expression “grand”, and the occurrence of a removal after a death, the overall feeling is that this could be an “everywhere” or “anywhere” rather than a location in Ireland.
The story is revealed in intimations, in the silences and pauses, as perceived by the man (a priest), who opens the door to the unnamed girl. Her arrival puts him in an invidious situation, as he comes under suspicion himself when the police are called in. “After a certain age, a man has to work hard to look trustworthy.”
The narrator is also intensely self-aware: “ … as well as seeing them, I could also see myself watching them, and how that would have looked to someone else who might have come along”.
This is a novel sparse in dialogue. While the characters remain frustratingly elusive, they do reveal believable impulses and idiosyncrasies:
“Put the front door on the snib.”
She had heard him but wanted him to say the word again. It had been years since she had heard that word.
In particular, the sex scenes are startlingly original, and believably evoked, so that when the point of view is finally revealed, the voyeurism is spooky.
Several images recur, and my sense is that these are motifs for this poet-author, although they are effective as revelations of the unnamed narrator’s subconscious longing too:
She could feel his tongue making spirals on that ball of bone at the top of her spine;
… positioning my own lips where hers had marked the glass;
She dragged all her hair across one shoulder and twisted it with one fist into a loose spiral.
Relationships are fraught with tension and manipulation: “It was as if he were leaving spaces, deliberately for me to say what he wanted me to say. However determined I was not to say what he wanted, each space he left felt like a little vortex that I couldn’t resist being sucked into.
Even physically empty spaces are suggestive: “like a cavity, an entrance even”.
Like Claire Louise Bennett’s experimental Pond, what makes this a compelling narrative is, ultimately, point of view. Where Bennett’s is entirely interior, O’Callaghan’s is perceived via an extraordinary, twice-removed point of view.
It’s as though the narrator – and the reader over his shoulder – is looking through a spyhole, gleaning fragments as told by the girl, and having to jigsaw the story together. With such a perspective, so many possibilities are left open. In terms of unanswered questions and sense of guilt, I was reminded of EM Forster’s A Passage to India. Nothing is resolved: not the backstory, not the characters, nor their relationships. The process of revelation becomes a Magus-like obfuscation instead. Because of all this veiling, it can be difficult to engage emotionally with the characters, except, perhaps, Martina and later, the priest. Yet this stark, austere, occasionally lyrical tale becomes a vortex the reader cannot resist.
What does the narrator witness for himself? That the girl, who appears on his doorstep, writes words on her skin. The rest he learns from her descriptions. Though this is a retold story, the narrator describes it as vividly as though he were a drop of sweat on the girl’s flesh. As for the scenes she was not privy to, his obsessed imagination does the rest.
Afric McGlinchey’s second poetry collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat (Salmon Poetry), was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Collection. www.africmcglinchey.com