Too ob­vi­ous to be artis­tic

The Dead House

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Sarah Gil­martin

By Billy O’Cal­laghan Bran­don, ¤12.99

‘To be nat­u­ral is to be ob­vi­ous,” wrote Os­car Wilde, “and to be ob­vi­ous is to be inartis­tic.” Billy O’Cal­laghan’s de­but novel The Dead House lays its foun­da­tions firmly in the nat­u­ral world. Set pre­dom­i­nantly in the scenic coastal vil­lage of Al­li­hies, Co Cork, the book is vivid in its de­scrip­tions of land­scape. O’Cal­laghan’s affin­ity with na­ture is the stand­out at­tribute in a novel lack­ing in ten­sion and fi­nesse.

A heavy- handed pro­logue an­nounces the book’s in­ten­tions: “Tonight, I have a story to tell, one that for years I’ve kept buried, one that I’d hoped could have re­mained so for­ever . . . Be­cause time, as we all know, can blur things. But maybe it can also, in its way, bring clar­ity. I only hope that, with so much at stake, I have not waited too long to speak of this”.

De­spite the nar­ra­tor Mike’s ef­forts to ramp up the chill fac­tor, The Dead House rarely en­gages. Told in a nat­u­ral­is­tic style that reads at times like clunky mem­oir – think Michael Hard­ing with­out the charm­ing de­tail – the story con­cerns a fe­male painter, Mag­gie, who re­lo­cates to Ire­land af­ter an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship. Mike is her art dealer and friend, who loans her thou­sands of pounds to buy a run­down, rat-in­fested cot­tage in Cork.

Scenes that show Mike car­ing for Mag­gie in Lon­don af­ter a vi­o­lent episode are well drawn, but the re­la­tion­ship is un­der­ex­plored. In­stead we’re given a ghost story of sorts as Mike and two oth­ers – gallery owner Ali­son and poet Liz – visit Mag­gie for a week­end in Al­li­hies that starts out with a few drinks and ends up with Mag­gie pos­sessed by a Famine- era ghost. “The Mas­ter” comes to life in a cliched scene in­volv­ing a Ouija board and man­ages to im­bue Mag­gie with a lengthy mono­logue of the past hor­rors of the cot­tage.

The hor­rors them­selves are com­pelling enough, per­haps the most com­pelling part of the book. Chil­dren die in fires, a young girl is bru­tally raped and mur­dered, the com­mu­nity at large per­ish from star­va­tion. But as The Mas­ter tells his tale, read­ers must sus­pend dis­be­lief in a novel that is supremely nat­u­ral­is­tic in other re­spects.

There are sim­i­lar is­sues with nar­ra­tion in ear­lier sec­tions when Mike re­lates Mag­gie’s his­tory and her move to Cork. How can he, from Lon­don, know the de­tails of her life in Ire­land, what she sees when she looks out her win­dow – and, more grat­ingly, the in­ner work­ings of her mind? A weak at­tempt to as­cribe the knowl­edge to phone con­ver­sa­tions does lit­tle to mit­i­gate the im­plau­si­bil­ity.

Th­ese jar­ring switches are com­pounded by a ten­dency to lead the reader. In the cot­tage in Al­li­hies, Mike’s soon- to- be girl­friend Ali­son “looked re­laxed, laughed read­ily and was clearly glad to be here”. Mike him­self is “com­fort­able with­out ac­tu­ally chal­leng­ing the thresh­old of se­ri­ous wealth. Fine art has, for me, been a rel­a­tively lu­cra­tive busi­ness”.

Ad­den­dum com­men­tary is com­mon, with lit­tle thought for econ­omy of lan­guage: “Ali­son wants Han­nah to know her roots, and to feel at home. Which is only right.” A plain-clothes police officer is “a woman in clothes so plain she might as well have car­ried a sign around her neck”. And “the odds on achiev­ing a con­vic­tion were thin to the point of anorexic”.

Di­a­logue is un­nec­es­sar­ily clar­i­fied: “ad­dress­ing nei­ther one of us in part i c ul a r ” . Even a Chi­nese take­away gets ex­plained as “reck­lessly un­healthy but far more con­ve­nient” than cook­ing. Cliches ap­pear fre­quently – sooner rather than later, peo­ple con­sumed with work, worlds that stop turn­ing, op­ti­mism stoked. “Life gets in the way,” Mike tells the reader, “it hap­pens to the best of us”.

Some l ovely de­tails do shine through at times, which harks to O’Cal­laghan’s pedi­gree as a short­story writer. Mag­gie’s eyes are “the deep pond green of car­ni­val grass”. When Mike trav­els back to the cot­tage to check up on Mag­gie, “her hair

Some lovely de­tails do shine through at times, which harks to O’Cal­laghan’s pedi­gree as a short-story writer

car­ried a pu­trid stench, the sharp vine­gar reek of sweat and de­cay”. His in­sights as an art dealer are in­ter­est­ing, as are some of the re­flec­tions pep­pered through­out the nar­ra­tive, though they have an au­tho­rial feel: “In a city, with its crowds and traf­fic noise, re­al­ity is a sheet of thick glass, solid and im­pen­e­tra­ble. But out here, it is a far less cer­tain state”.

Na­ture is ad­mirably show­cased through­out: “The ground flowed in tu­mul­tuous or­der a cas­cade of the wildest washed-out greens torn and split by jut­ting flashes of slate and lime­stone.”

From Cork, O’Cal­laghan is au­thor of three short- story col­lec­tions in­clud­ing The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Be­hind ( 2013), the ti­tle story of which earned him the 2013 Bord Gáis En­ergy Ir­ish Book Award for Short Story of the Year. He was short­listed for the Costa Short Story Award for The Boat­man last Jan­uary. Hailed as a mas­ter of un­der­state­ment for his short fic­tion, this qual­ity is lack­ing in his de­but novel. The Dead House is a tri­umph of the ob­vi­ous over the artis­tic.

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