Himself could have been built out of a couplet from Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry: “We are a dark people,/our eyes ever turned inward”. It is a reminder that Irish writing is at its best at its darkest, when there are secrets and violent possibilities to be discovered, and guilt to be apportioned.
Mahony, a Dublin hippie, arrives in the village of Mulderrig in 1976 and raises long-hidden memories among the villagers of his teenage mother when he begins to investigates her disappearance with the help of an aged actress, Mrs Cauley. However, it is not only buried memories that Mahony uncovers for he also has the ability to see, and talk with, the ghosts of the long dead who still walk around the homes they once knew:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when the dead are trying to remember something, the living are trying harder to forget it.”
Luckily, for Mahony’s investigation, the dead “hang about the place, don’t they, watching, haunting? That makes them prime witnesses.” Using a production of J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, with Mahony in the lead role, as a ploy to raise the past of Mulderrig and bring the mystery of his parentage into the open.
Jess Kidd’s writing, with its vivacity and glee in the exuberance of its own language, brings to mind some notable Irish novels: from the verbal extravagance of Robert McLiam Wilson’s Ripley Bogle (a verbose Irish tramp relates the story of his miserable Northern Irish past) to the multiple voices of Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart. It parallels the recently published translations of The Dirty Dust, a novel originally written in Gaelic and which portrays the long-buried residents in the graveyard of a small village as they continue life-long feuds and their petty bickering in their graves. Alongside this literary tradition Himself is carefully crafted with a comedic energy that comes from Father Ted, as much as Flann O’Brien, in its snubbing of that which was conventional, and feared, wisdom in an Irish village of the 1970s. The description of the local priest, “Father Quinn, who, after all, is nothing but a gobdaw in a black suit”, may not be a daring challenge to the Catholic Church in a novel published in 2016 but Kidd draws in the reader to share in the delight of the memory of crossing such a boundary.
Himself is a historical novel, the faith and assumptions of the Ireland (of forty years ago) that it describes is gone but, as Muriel Spark once wrote, “without a mythology, a novel is nothing”. Kidd has a good deal of fun with the mythology of the Irish village, just as Donal Ryan also plays on village life as modern folklore. However, it is the rhythm of the language that is most memorable, the dip and roll Kidd brings to her dialogue and description, as well as the comic energy that infuses the book (reassuring the world that Irish humour is alive and well, despite the evidence of Mrs Brown’s Boys).
Any Cop?: Himself has a confidence and spirited originality that places Jess Kidd’s debut alongside the work of Donal Ryan and Belinda McKeon.