Set during the Famine years and after, Paul Lynch captivates readers with this gritty, historical coming-of-age story. On Blackthorn Hill in the wilds of North Donegal, 14-year-old Grace Coyle suddenly finds herself stripped of her home, her family and her identity.
If Grace is to persevere and survive, she must brave the desolate and dangerous roads of her homeland and it's people beset by famine and plague. A beautifully written novel with expert prose, Lynch could easily be mistaken for portraying a fictional dystopian future, but in actual fact he is recounting the horrors and the trauma of the past.
Grace’s family home on Blackthorn is full of hungry mouths and empty stomachs. Her mother Sarah is expecting a baby in two months and recently the gaze of the insidious landlord Boggs has begun to linger on a growing Grace. Drastic action must be taken. On a cold, desolate night. Graces' mother wrenches her from her bed, drags her out into the biting night and cuts off all her hair declaring: "you are the strong one now".
The following day, Grace is put into over-sized men's clothes and leaves the small cabin dressed as a boy. Her younger brother, 12-year-old Colly sneaks out and will travel with her. His witticisms and observations will give her some useful distraction throughout the journey.
As the pair travel along the road in search of work, they find that tensions are high and spirits low. Starvation takes hold and the sight of "sunken cages" of chests become commonplace, people become more desperate and less trustworthy. If a horse falls on the road or a rotting sheep washes up the river, there will be many bony and weak hands to tear at it, grappling for scraps on which to survive.
From a distance it seems each one is decrepit and yet she sees these people are all ages, their rag clothing upon them as if it were the wind that dressed them. The winnowing of these people comes as a shock. She knows people are hungry but has not yet seen anything like this.
A raw sense of unease envelopes the reader; the road and its people are dangerous, capable of cruel and disturbing acts, of which Grace is guilty too. The most harrowing incident in the novel is followed by four empty black pages as it seems no words can reconcile what has taken place. The break is needed so the reader can take stock and absorb what has happened - a line has been crossed.
In Lynch's captivating story, folklore and reality become one and the same, whether it be wearing your clothes inside out on the Samhain, or your livestock disappearing thanks to the presence of a pooka. Or it might simply be bad luck explained as a witch's curse. When times get tough people cling to their beliefs because they have little else. These alluring cultural nuggets are what endear the story to the reader along with the author's cast of honest, uncompromising characters.
Throughout her journey Grace will become a cattle header, a road builder and a devotee. Likewise her gendered identity will morph - for example at the beginning of the novel she is desperate not to portray feminine traits. So she speaks in another's voice, holds herself in another way and restrains her body. As a result, she is something of an androgynous figure hovering between gender in the early sections of the story. Fortunately, she develops coping mechanisms as she progresses from a young girl, to a boy, to a woman.
Somewhat akin to Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel The Road, Grace can suck you in completely and make your skin prickle with unease. The author employs vivid phrases such as feet like bruised fruit or blood trickles over the rocks of my body.
There can be no doubt about the Paul Lynch's command of language but at times the descriptiveness can be a be a bit drawn-out and tedious. Not a particularly easy read but worthy of note, most definitely.
Biographical Note: Paul Lynch's two previous novels are Red Sky at Morning (2013) and The Black Snow (2014). The New York Times Book Review has selected Grace, Paul Lynch's third novel, as an Editors’ Choice, declaring as follows "The Irish writer’s third novel raises timeless questions about suffering and survival through the story of two children expelled from their impoverished home in the midst of the Great Famine. When you’re starving, Lynch seems to be asking, are you truly alive?"
The author won the French booksellers’ prize Prix Libr'à Nous for Best Foreign Novel and was a finalist for the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (Best Foreign Book Prize). He won the Prix des Lecteurs Privat, and was nominated for France’s Prix Femina, the Prix du Premier Roman (First Novel Prize) and the Prix du Roman Fnac (Fnac Novel Prize), as well as being shortlisted at Ireland’s Bord Gais Irish Books of the Year. In the US, both his novels were Amazon.com books of the month and he was selected by Barnes and Noble for the Discover Great New Writers series.