An il­licit meet­ing be­tween lovers makes for a poignant med­i­ta­tion on mid­dle age and the pass­ing of time

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Claire Kil­roy

Billy O’Callaghan is the au­thor of three short story col­lec­tions, which have won an Ir­ish book award and a nom­i­na­tion for a Costa prize. His de­but novel,

The Dead House, ap­peared in Ire­land in 2017 and was set in con­tem­po­rary west Cork, an area of out­stand­ing beauty dev­as­tated in the 19th cen­tury by the Great Famine. It de­ployed the hor­ror genre to plumb the depths of the dark­est hor­ror in Ir­ish his­tory: by day, the bo­hemian char­ac­ters cooked and drank and fell in love in a re­stored Famine cot­tage, but by night, dark spir­its were un­leashed. As a novel it was gen­uinely fright­en­ing; as an ap­proach to an un­fath­omably dark pe­riod, it showed a writer alert to the ef­fects of the past on the present, and an imag­i­na­tion will­ing to take risks to il­lus­trate them.

In his last col­lec­tion, The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Be­hind (2013), some of the sto­ries – such as “Farmed Out”, about Ire­land’s in­sti­tu­tional abuse of chil­dren – were stag­ger­ing. At his best, O’Callaghan cre­ates char­ac­ters who live with the reader. Char­ac­ters who live with the writer, too, as ev­i­denced by the reap­pear­ance of three from that col­lec­tion in his se­cond novel, My Coney Is­land Baby.

Michael, an Ir­ish em­i­grant, and Caitlin, an Ir­ishAmer­i­can with writer’s block, have been meet­ing as lovers on Coney Is­land once a month for a quar­ter of a cen­tury. They are both un­hap­pily mar­ried to other peo­ple. The novel un­folds over the course of six or seven hours, from noon on the prom­e­nade when the cou­ple stag­ger through a win­ter gale, to their train jour­ney back to Man­hat­tan. Most of the book is set in by Billy O’Callaghan, Cape, £14.99 a cold ho­tel room, a “bed rented by the hour”, but the love Michael and Caitlin share is the kind that makes one lit­tle room an ev­ery­where. “The room, he de­cides, will be suf­fi­cient for their needs, but only be­cause they have car­ried love in here with them, in them.”

A dom­i­nant sub­ject in O’Callaghan’s re­cent work is mid­dle age. Stud­ies have re­vealed that hap­pi­ness is U-shaped and Michael and Caitlin, who are in their late 40s, are caught right in the trough. They both mar­ried young, then met one an­other soon af­ter. Michael had “never known such a mag­ni­tude of shar­ing, both bod­ily and of the soul, with any­one else”.

The nar­ra­tive swings be­tween the past and the present, be­tween Michael’s per­spec­tive and Caitlin’s. O’Callaghan writes his pro­tag­o­nists minutely and con­vinc­ingly. These are two peo­ple who should be to­gether but who have found them­selves si­mul­ta­ne­ously on the straight and nar­row, and the road less trav­elled. The ques­tion the novel asks of them, and of its reader, is whether they will con­tinue down this path or re­treat.

Coney Is­land in a Jan­uary storm is a de­serted, grim sight, “so fit for bro­ken things, it has be­come their place”. While wan­der­ing, the cou­ple can’t help but re­mem­ber what it used to be, “a meld­ing ca­coph­ony of a hun­dred si­mul­ta­ne­ous rack­ets ea­ger for their piece of the day”. This dis­par­ity mir­rors the gulf be­tween Caitlin and Michael as they once were and who they are now. It also au­gurs ill for the fu­ture fac­ing them.

My Coney Is­land Baby ex­am­ines the scaf­fold­ing of mid­dle age: duty, the fad­ing of pas­sion, the ero­sion of choices, loom­ing mor­tal­ity, a pe­riod in life when “what is gone feels far more im­me­di­ate, more en­livened, than what tries to count as the here and now”. If this all sounds very sad, that’s be­cause it is. The novel is a med­i­ta­tion on an of­ten dis­ap­point­ing time and O’Callaghan doesn’t shy away from his sub­ject. Michael’s “sal­low face [is] rut­ted with ter­mi­nal dread”. When he un­dresses, he leaves his vest on to cover his mid­dle-age spread. Caitlin notes that “the sit­ting pos­ture does him no favours”. But she loves him more than ever. Mean­while, day­light is fad­ing. The lovers are run­ning out of time. Michael has told Caitlin that his wife, Barb, has ter­mi­nal can­cer. Caitlin is build­ing up to re­veal­ing some bad news of her own. She “un­der­stands com­pletely that, without Michael, she is alone” and that she has “stepped wrong and lost out on a soul con­nec­tion”. Dark­ness falls and duty calls. The cou­ple bat­tle back through the storm and sit hud­dled to­gether on the train, staring at a pair of young lovers across the aisle. In the clos­ing pages, O’Callaghan’s prose reaches a pitch of emo­tional in­ten­sity that en­sures these char­ac­ters will linger with you long af­ter the book is closed. Coney Is­land, New York City

Claire Kil­roy’s The Devil I Know is pub­lished by Faber. To buy My Coney Is­land Baby for £13.19 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

My Coney Is­land Baby

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