The novel opens with a prologue in which a man is violently attacking a woman while their son looks on. Love once existed between these two, hands which once lovingly caressed, now smash with force. That strong love now replaced with an equally destructive rage. A rage so powerful that the woman realises that this rage, in the form of the man’s fists pummelling into her head, will take her life. She looks for her baby, but can no longer see, she listens for his cries, but can no longer hear.
The man plans to kill both mother and son, but after burying the mother and returning to find the son, he is perplexed, puzzled. It is almost as if the very forest itself has hidden the child from him. No matter how hard he searches he cannot find the child. Ferns have curled around him, branches have stooped and dropped their leaves in a blanket covering him.
The first chapter will vault the reader twenty-six years into the future from the prologue. Mahony will exit his bus and find himself in a village named Mulderrig. Mahony has not been here for twenty-six years and even if he could remember, he would not notice that nothing has changed. The bus driver turns the bus around leaving Mahony with an ominous warning claiming that,
“It’s as if a hundred summers have come at once to the town, when a mile along the coast the rain’s hopping up off the ground and there’s a wind that would freeze the tits of a hen. If you ask me it all spells a dose of trouble.”
We then find out that the dead are watching Mahony, watching from multiple vantage points in the town. Peering through windows, watching from back alleys and lanes. They seem to have an interest in Mahony. Mahony has moved from Dublin to this nowhere town ostensibly for a bit of peace and quiet but he is in fact there to investigate his mother’s disappearance. He is told by one of the locals, Tadhg, the first to meet him, “It’s the arse end of beyond”.
As Mahony chats with some men at Flanagan’s Bar, it seems that he was raised by Sister Mary Margaret since he was left on the orphanage’s doorstep as a baby. Strangely he was found in a basket with leaves for a blanket and rose petals for a pillow. Back at the bar he has an envelope that was given to him by the sisters with instructions to not be opened until the child is grown. He opens the envelope at the bar.
What he finds after reading the contents of the letter sets up an amazing narrative filled with magical realism. Ghosts, start to appear everywhere approaching and engaging Mahony who is crestfallen because he used to see them all the time and thought that he was rid of them. Talking trees that don’t just talk, but gossip like a group of old ladies at their Sunday bridge game.
Mahony, as we know, has come to Mulderrig to find out what happened to his mother. He is caught in quite the conundrum. If his mother is alive, why did she leave him? And as he has the power to see dead people, if dead than why can’t he see her?
Chapter seven will roll back in time to 1948, to give us a beguiling, tantalizing glimpse of Orla, Mahony’s mother. This chapter is superb.
By chapter eight, the reader will notice a dark humour slowly enmeshing itself into the narrative, building until it is almost palpable, and you will feel yourself with a permanent smile on your face as you read. Then, believe me, the laughter will start. I will throw the challenge down and defy anybody not to be laughing as they read chapter thirteen.
As well as a narrative that you simply can’t put down you will notice that Kidd sure can write,
“ says Jack Brophy, standing left of stage as tall and trustworthy as a locked parochial wine press”
“says Mrs Cauley in a voice as unctuous as medicinal syrup”
“start to convey Mrs Lavelle out of the hall with the tenacity of a swarm of worker ants seeing off a trespassing wasp”
What is it about these Irish writers and their wonderful metaphors?
Mrs Cauley, who has taken it upon herself to help Mahony, has taken over the role of my favourite character of the year, wrestling it just from the grip of Dead Papa Toothwort from “Lanny”.
In a nutshell this is your classic whodunnit. Oh, but it is more, so much more. in fact, it is like comparing a nutshell to a pistachio plantation.
The narrative and writing alone are powerful enough to power this novel to the heights of one of the best debut’s I have read, but the magical realism element propels it to another stratum entirely. The ghosts, the ever-pervading presence of the forest, the little town which feels like a living, breathing, sentient being itself. Incredibly magical.
I think I may have to learn a few more languages to enable me to reach the number of superlatives I want to pile on top of this novel. To think that the fact that this novel is a debut is crazy. I am now straight onto “Things in Jars”.
I may be late to the party with this one, but this is my favourite read of the year, and will probably remain so. 5 Stars!
Let me just share with you one more zinger from Kidd.
“He has the look of someone whose soul got up and walked away in disgust a long time ago.”
Jess Kidd was brought up in London as part of a large family from county Mayo and has been praised for her unique fictional voice. Her debut, Himself, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards in 2016. She won the Costa Short Story Award the same year. Her second novel, The Hoarder, published as Mr. Flood's Last Resort in the U.S. and Canada was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2019. Both books were BBC Radio 2 Book Club Picks. Her latest book, the Victorian detective tale Things in Jars, has been released to critical acclaim. Jess’s work has been described as ‘Gabriel García Márquez meets The Pogues.’
There is a wonderful interview with Jess talking about herself and "Himself", ha, see what I did there at ESSENTIAL. Here is the link - https://www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/lifestyle/celebrity-interview/jess-kid-interview-himself-rosanna-greenstreet/
I simply cannot describe how much I love this book and it has propelled Jess Kidd straight into my favourite authors. This is my favourite book of the year and I have a signed, first edition, first print winging its way to me as I type.