Review published on May 12, 2018.
Don’t be put off by the dark nature of this brilliant novel. It is an unflinching tale set in the worst period of Ireland’s history. Grace is an important novel and thoroughly deserving of its position on the prestigious Walter Scott Prize shortlist. The Irish potato famine resulted in the death or emigration of one quarter of the country’s population, some one and a half million people.
Paul Lynch’s novel opens in 1845, as the hunger strikes (occasioned by a potato blight). A desperate mother, expecting a fifth child, throws her 14-year-old daughter out of the house; then there is one less mouth to feed. She is also saving the child/woman (this is a very different age) from the lecherous attentions of her step-father. Her hair is roughly cut – a crude attempt to present her to the world as a boy – and with a final rare meal of meat in her belly, Grace is cast out. She begins her trek across a barren country, a landscape populated by people desperately clinging to life, suffering alone. The odyssey lasts four years, from Donegal to Limerick and back again. Grace becomes a cow hand, a servant and a bandit. She undergoes the most cruel rites of passage disguised as a boy but becoming a woman. Tragedy strikes from the outset, her younger brother Colly has accompanied her and he will stay with her but only in spirit (he can be mischievous):
“I will become a poisoner of horses. You will travel behind me and fix the horses right again.”
Grace is named for ‘God’s favour’ but there is precious little of that in evidence in this story. Yet, Grace muses, sometimes in internal dialogue with Colly, on the nature of faith and belief:
“She haunts the late morning with her look.”
Grace is a harrowing depiction of suffering, of humanity in a parlous state, of community degraded. There is no direct political aspect to the book, the tragedy is not laid at the door of the English, but the suffering speaks for itself. This is not a history lesson but Grace’s personal experience. The novel does, however, echo modern concerns over the divide between the rich and the poor in society, the lack of concern for the welfare of the most vulnerable. Grace is strong-willed, brave and resourceful, she represents that spirit of survival in humanity that brings people through the worst of times. Her haunting tale is told in lyrical unvarnished prose, crafted and considered:
“What is colour but some sort of expression as to the nature of a thing.”
Lynch has blurred the lines between the living and the dead in his tale, the inference is that the living are half-dead in any case, but the novel revels in the discussions between Grace and her dead brother. We see her experiments with religious understanding, dawning love and growing into a woman.
Grace is a brutal and bleak reimagining, but how could it be otherwise? It is an exploration of the worst tragedy in Irish history as seen through the eyes of someone suffering and surviving at the heart of the misery. Grace, as a novel, is unique in facing these worst of times so directly, so nakedly. It’s a slender story loaded with meaning and insight. It is a powerful rendering of the human spirit in adversity. A truly compelling read that may feel heart-wrenching at times but is ultimately rewarding.
Paul Burke 5/4
Grace by Paul Lynch
Oneworld Publications 9781786073051 hbk Sep 2017
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