Of roses, swans and the ordering of fine things in great rooms……….
Paraic O’Donnell’s strange, seductive, immersive Gothic literary creation had me pretty well hooked from the off.
Set in a time which is not immediately clear, it has an eerie, crumbling quality which feels almost Gothic Victorian – except that the dramatic opening involves the arrival of cars to the crumbling mansion which is the main setting. However, at a later point in the novel, where some back story of one of the central characters will be revealed, the mode of personal transport appears to be horses, with the theft of ‘a good horse from a coaching inn’ . As some of what is going on in the book is tied in with a secret society, mysterious powers, and some indication that those connected with the society seem to age more slowly than the rest of us, it’s perfectly possible some kind of Rip Van Winkle effect is happening………………
This is a difficult book to categorise in some ways. It inhabits some kind of nether world which is not exactly magic realism, not at all faery, somewhat fantastical, whilst at the same time much involved with reality, and, even more so with the power, mystery and magic of artistic creation itself. Particularly writing. It’s also a mystery, a thriller. And beautifully written.
Where Paraic O’Donnell has particularly scored is in his creation of character and relationship. Clara is an unusual young girl, an astonishingly gifted artist, and someone with an imagination of great intensity. The true potency of that imagination and artistry will become clear as the story progresses.
‘What art must do is attempt, as nature has, to assemble the tissues of beauty for itself. It must construct its own rose from the raw air, endow it with its colour, its small weight, its tender volutes – even its scent. Art must set this thing before us, must assert its reality in the void of our disbelief. It must make it live’
Clara strains against the impulse to yawn, She is thankful that she has never been made to go to school. It is this sort of thing, she supposes, that children must endure in classrooms all the time
Clara is also mute, and in some ways self-sufficient. She is not emotionally withdrawn, though, and her strongest connection is Eustace, who is a kind of minder, retainer, butler, major domo, possessed of both brains and muscle, and employed by the owner of the crumbling mansion, Crowe. Crowe is dissolute and louche, a genius of a writer, though exactly what he is writing is again, something to discover. He might almost be the writer of everything which ever was. Crowe, Eustace and Clara exist in some kind of equable state. Unfortunately this is shattered at the start of the novel. Definitely the worse for drink, and in a squabble over his latest woman, Crowe kills a would be rival, unleashing the forces of retribution. Those forces will be implemented by shadowy members of the strange secret order Crowe belongs to. Eustace, who is the central character, the central point of view, for most of the novel, is the one who will try to salvage things, to prevent the un-spelt out punishment which Crowe must suffer, as the murder has broken an immutable law of the strange society. Eustace is deeply loyal, there is some strange history to be discovered between him and Crowe, but most of all, he wishes to protect Clara, the mysterious child, and keep her from harm.
The agents of harm are also a little strange. Chastern is a dying academic, deeply envious of Crowe’s creativity, deeply disdaining his crudity and indulgence in fleshly pursuits. Chastern has his own ‘minder, major-domo, retainer and all the rest, – a sinister, watchful, highly intelligent, dangerous and deadly one.
There are definitely god-games being played, and things get remarkably dark and messy
O’ Donnell creates his immersive story wonderfully well. The book is not presented in linear fashion, there is a lot of cutting back and forth, in time and place, but for the most part this is managed really well, and I enjoyed the gradual unpicking of the past as the story progressed insistently towards ‘what happens next’ page turning suspense
I must confess to a sense of disappointment in the ending of the book, the two final confrontations. The games played with the reader (well, this one) the hints and allusions had been most enjoyable and atmospheric, but I fell out of complete surrender at the end
Nonetheless, a very impressive first novel. If you were intrigued by, for example, The Night Circus, or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, for both quality of writing and the compulsive, authentic strangeness of the created world, I think this will appeal. Like those two novels, it is much more literary than fantasy fiction.
I must also comment on the delectable cover image, which drew my attention to the book. It is both beautiful, and, having read the book, is in keeping with major themes; far more than ‘the title is swans, a picture of swans’ . The artist is Sinem Erkas
I received this as a review copy from the publishers via NetGalley