It was Ron Charles’ review in The Washington Post that induced me to read this 645-page book, and it was the memory of his enthusiasm that kept me at it when I nearly gave it up after two grim sections, one featuring a teenage girl and the other her pre-teen brother. Then came a section describing a horror that was averted by the entrance of a woman speaking about black dogs barking outside. After that, I fell into the book; I was hoping for more instances of unexplained powers used for good.
This Irish book set after the 2008 crash that was devastating for the economy is told mainly through sections devoted to the four members of a family: Cass, the teenage girl, PJ, her brother, Imelda, their mother, and Dickie, their father. The family had been very successful in their small town as Dickie ran the car dealership founded by his father, Imelda was a great beauty, Cass was destined to leave for Trinity College, and PJ always had the latest online games. As things fall apart for all of them, we learn about the horrors of the past that surrounded this family.
The “voice” for each of them was distinctive. Imelda’s sections were the most unusual in that they had no punctuation but were easy enough to follow. Sections sometimes ended with a cliffhanger, so you are anxious to know if this one or that one escaped, a disqualifying device for me. The troubles, bad news, and bad choices of these characters seemed to grow exponentially. The ending had each family member hurtling through a terrible storm toward each other with an unspeakable threat in the air.
Ron Charles speaks of the “sentence-by-sentence elegance” and “stylistic brilliance.” After I re-read my highlighted sections, I see evidence of that, but for me the horrors outweighed those attributes. Here are some of the passages I noted:
- A description of Cass’s high school friend Elaine watching one of the Gaelic games: “in games, she confined herself to the sidelines, where she scowled, flicked her hair, and wafted reluctantly back and forth with the general direction of play, like a lovely frond at the bottom of a noisy grunting ocean.”
- More about Elaine: “Nature in her eyes was almost as bad as sports. “The way it kept growing? The way things, like crops or whatever, would die and then the next year they came back? Did no one else get how creepy that was?”
- Here’s Imelda describing her true love (not Dickie): “And love was what it was There was never any doubt about it Though it wasn’t the falling-off-a-cliff feeling she’d always expected Not a plummet More like a leaf dawdling down to earth in swoops and circles”
- Imelda refers to this tale that might describe the arc of the family: “and from long ago the story came back to her of the traveller who falls asleep on the hillside Wakes in a wondrous hall full of golden-haired maidens princes treasure feasting but then the next morning it’s all gone he’s out on the hill again with just the clothes on his back and when he goes home it’s a hundred years later and everyone he knows dead”
Was I lifted or enlightened by this Booker Prize finalist? Did I feel connected to any of these folks either when they were fabulously rich or wretchedly poor? No.
Paul Murray, The Bee Sting, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023, 645 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.