The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of [email protected] – an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.* Our fourth book is Himself by Jess Kidd.
We admire an audacious debut. Jess Kidd opens her first novel with a startling prologue that is shot through with lyrical beauty and poetic violence. County Mayo, 1950: deep in a forest outside the coastal village of Mulderrig, a young woman is battered to death in front of her infant son. Within moments the ancient trees fold in on themselves, sheltering the baby from the harm that befell his mother. All is not evil within these woods.
Twenty six years later, young Mahoney steps off a bus wearing grimy bell bottoms and movie star looks and a determination to find the mother who abandoned him to a Dublin orphanage as a baby. But the town of Mulderrig is a place like no other: it’s a ‘picture of heaven’ where ‘the colours are a little bit brighter and the sky a little bit wider.’ A place no one ever leaves, because the roads leading to it are ‘uphill all the way’. Mahoney is armed with a photo and a name: Orla Sweeney, once the teenage scourge of the town, and an unsigned note telling him that the townsfolk stole his mam from him, and warning him to watch himself because, it says: ‘They all lie.’
But Mahoney has his wits and his mother’s potent allure and he uses it to effect, insinuating himself quickly into the town and entrancing its residents, especially the faded actress Mrs. Cauley and her young carer Shauna, whom he lodges with. Along the way he is both helped and hindered by ghosts, not just the ghosts of the past, but the actual dead, who walk the streets of Mulderrig ‘drawn to the confused and the fractured,’ like Mahoney, with ‘big cracks and gaps in their tales.’ From the moment Mahoney steps off the bus, the dead litter his path, beckoning, beseeching, cajoling, infuriating and ultimately guiding him towards his mother’s killer. These are benign spirits with stories of their own to tell to anyone who can hear them, their eyes doleful, their manner resigned. And both Mahoney and Mrs Cauley are receptive listeners.
Together they concoct a plan to stage The Playboy Of The Western World for the annual church fundraiser, with Mahoney in the lead. With his mother’s features and mannerisms, insists Mrs. Cauley, he is sure to smoke out her killer: get the townsfolk ‘rattled and someone’s bound to point the finger.’ But as soon as auditions are underway, malevolent forces are unleashed – forces that are all too human. The town closes ranks, dissembles, fabricates, threatens and eventually lurches towards violence, just as the note had warned. And soon it becomes clear that Orla Sweeney’s killer aims to finish what he started.
This time the land itself rises up in defiance: Mulderrig is a mystical place where trees can bend at will, rivers can flow backward, books can fly and the dead can right wrongs. Together they conspire to steer Mahoney towards the truth of his past. This is an utterly unique novel with characters that, like its protagonist, beguile and charm. It’s immaculately written and thunderously enjoyable – a darkly comic story of love lost and regained. And a very spirited tale indeed.
Words by Betsy Tobin
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