‘As entertaining, thrilling, satisfying and stimulating as only the best novels can be’ – The Black Snow by Paul Lynch
The Black Snow takes some explaining and it’s a slightly dangerous thing because the wrong word could send you skittering away and it’s important you are given the right measure of it so you check it out for yourself. In order to do that, we are going to begin by talking about the story because story is important. After we talk about the story we will talk about the kinds of writers that Lynch is like. And then we will talk about writing and language. That is the order you need to come to an understanding of The Black Snow in. Then possibly a coda about why this order.
It is 1945. The second world war is coming to an end. A farmer, Barnabas Kane, is working his fields with his son Billy and another man, Matthew Peoples. Slowly, more slowly than you would credit perhaps, they come to an awareness of fire in the distance – one of Barnabas Kane’s buildings is burning. The men and the boy run, Barnabas’ wife Eskra, an American lady who met Barnabas when he worked in New York, fearlessly building skyscrapers, standing helplessly by. It is the byre that is burning, all of Barnabas’ animals burning within. The two men run inside, ostensibly to free the animals. Of course there is tragedy. What follows is complex, thought provoking, unsettling, haunting and quite brilliantly wrought.
We see what happens to Barnabas and Eskra, of course, the event pushing them apart and bringing them together (the tidal shifts common to any enduring marriage). We see Eskra try to draw Barnabas from his bed, we see her struggle, we see her powerlessness, we see her loyalty, we see her strength. We are also privy to Barnabas’ own vacillations, his attempts to resolve their predicament, approaching his neighbours, approaching the bank. We slowly come to see the ways in which the town resent Barnabas (despite the fact he was born there, his years working in the US have rendered him an outlier, an outlier with an American wife); what’s more, Matthew People’s widow feels that Barnabas is to blame for the death of her husband. Refuting attempts by neighbours to buy his fields, Barnabas finds a solution that draws even greater resentment upon his shoulders.
Slowly (this is a book that the word ‘inexorably’ was created for), menace comes to settle, manifesting itself in curious and oblique ways – the disappearance of bed sheets, the appearance of wasps. What’s more, the landscape and the world in which the characters move, as timeless as that found in Thomas Hardy or Cormac McCarthy, becomes more and more distinct and also, worryingly, refracted through a kind of weird metaphysics (as if old gods are watching events unfold below, taking an interest, moving pawns on a chessboard). As Eskra admits to herself after a curious interlude with a neighbour whose own son may or may not be to blame for the initial fire, pausing by the roadside to examine bluebells,
“What the bluebells evoked in her was unspoken, nature’s mastery over a part of her being she could not account for. Perhaps it was an awareness of time’s passing, another late spring and her fleet life through it or maybe it was just the shock of their beauty, that a light so piercing to her heart could be as simple as this.”
This unspoken covenant has a dangerous flipside, however, and there are members of the community who voice concerns over Barnabas’ eventual actions, whose words can be seen – given what happens at the climax of the novel, as a kind of judgement, a truth:
“I fear for ye, Eskra Kane. Taking them stones is a curse. It makes a mockery of the Lord. They come from other people’s misfortune. They’re part of the land, relics that must be remembered. I’m not going to do a thing to stop him and neither will anyone around here but everyone knows. If he were an honest man and a local man he would have stopped what he is doing when I asked him.”
We said we would talk about writers Lynch is like. We’ve mentioned two: Thomas Hardy and Cormac McCarthy. Like Hardy, Lynch can be hard, like Hardy, the landscape has a significant part to play in the unfolding of the action. Ditto McCarthy, although McCarthy is best viewed as an inspiration for Lynch’s language which we will come to in a minute. The other key writer for approaching Lynch is William Trevor. Like Trevor, Lynch has a moral compass, his tale deals in absolutes of a sort but also pivotal moments, points after which life has changed forever; The Black Snow has several such moments, moments in which the narrative and the language fuse into a pure image, in which you find yourself struggling alongside whichever character you are inhabiting at that moment, fighting off wasps, raging at the death of a family member, brought low. There is also a sort of dotted line to Kevin Bohane, but only because they share an audacious desire to shake language up and have you work a teensy bit to get the most out of their writing (there is also a key difference between Lynch and Bohane – Bohane would be as happy to have you laughing as scratching your head, Lynch feels like Barton Fink, this is serious, world changing stuff, nothing is wasted).
And so, almost at last, to the language. Lynch’s language is not straightforward. Let’s go as far to say it’s unusual. If you’re a fan of not quite experimental but not quite straightforward books, then you’ve got a lot to look forward to here. If you are challenged by the idea of difficult(ish) language (Lynch places words in an order that has you retracing your steps from time to time, to make sure you got everything you should), you should still lock horns with The Black Snow because it is a terrific novel, as entertaining, thrilling, satisfying and stimulating as only the best novels can be. You sometimes find novels in which language is playful lack narrative impetus, as if the author has spent all of their time on doing something different and can rest assured that obscure construction and obfuscation will create the sense of difficulty that elevates one book, in some minds, above others. Lynch does not do that. Lynch, you feel, knows that words and story are equally important. He obviously works at his words (and sometimes over-reaches – but wouldn’t we all rather have writers whose aim outstrips their reach?) and they are the bedrock from which the novel grows – but the fact that the novel does grow, and continue growing throughout its 250-odd pages, is a testament to the skill and artistry that Lynch brings to bear.
Any Cop?: Lynch was new to me but The Black Snow is so good I have already picked up his debut Red Sky in the Morning. From here on in, Lynch is a name to watch.
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- April 3, 2014 / 5:03 am