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Amnesiacs, magpies, and crazy people — one magpie for sorrow, two magpies for mirth…. How does that nursery rhyme go?
Magpies are but one of the many nagging, evocative repetitions that abound and rebound in the wonderful, off-kilter Kilbrack by Jamie O’Neill. Words within sentences, lines within paragraphs, recurring combinations of phrases, objects, and looks echo with something — not always identifiable, but always resonant — that has come before.
O’Neill’s Ireland will be familiar to those readers taken by his gorgeous previous novel, At Swim, Two Boys, but will be fascinating for new readers as well. His novel is resonant with modern humor and lyricism, while steeped in Irish history.
Kilbrack is all these things, and this too: A detective story of discovery and memory, where both everything and nothing are as they seem.
The novel opens as “O’Leary Montagu closes his book ” — a beloved copy of the atrociously typo-ridden memoir Ill Fares the Land. O’Leary has read the memoir hundreds of times, and the novel’s opening scenes of a claustrophobic train car chugging toward the town of Kilbrack immediately establish an aching sensitivity, a devilish sense of humor, a keen eye for ridiculous human fallibility, and a definite sense that these characters are on a track that leads to a place they need to go.
O’Leary is a great literary creation. His voice is quirky and humorous, but with a mystery that suggests a depth of seriousness below the surface. Within the first few chapters, and before O’Leary has even spent any real time in Kilbrack, we know that he is an obsessive diarist, a constant observer and commentator, and a “reported ” criminal offender and sexual deviant with unexplained scars on his face. An unseen but seemingly indispensable character named Mary offers further hints to O’Leary’s past.
This is a detective story (writing memos and detective speak are two of O’Leary’s self-narrative tools), and the search seems to be for O’Leary’s soul.
That soul might just be found in Kilbrack, which has the feel of an Irish Brigadoon — a lost-town comprised of a few houses, an odd pharmacy and bar, the rectory and an abandoned church, and buildings holding onto just “a memory of paint. ” All “surrounded by pastures, lush with the long green grass of Ireland. ” O’Neill’s descriptions are liltingly beautiful and funny, but Kilbrack itself is a town choking itself to death on isolation and fear.
The townsfolk are detailed with a poet’s eye and a humanist’s heart, and the story of O’Leary’s quest roams freely over and through the town and its denizens. O’Leary’s first night in town is related as a stunning series of quiet movements from home to home and mind to mind, where the novel’s subtitled namesake (Nancy Valentine) makes her first appearance.
O’Neill’s twisty, devilish humor dances across the turning pages with an almost gothic sensibility. The characters (chief among them Charity Cuthbert and her sardonic daughter Livia, the suspiciously manic Nellie Maguire, wiry old Bridie O’Toole, and a mysterious old man in a grandly decaying house on a hill) are unique in their madness but intricately linked. The narrative views them through the goggle-eyed vantage point of the bottom of a beer-wet pint.
Admittedly, after reading O’Neill’s brilliant, lyric At Swim, Two Boys, it’s impossible not to approach Kilbrack with a hopeful enthusiasm, and the novel does not disappoint. O’Neill’s craft here is a delightful swirl of humor, loss and glowing hope as beautiful and lush as the green, fog-shrouded hills of Ireland.