The Wild Laughter is one of the most complete and satisfying works of fiction I have encountered. The author’s dexterity with language alone makes it worth a reader’s time and attention. There is also a compelling plot presented with humour and flair. None of this is to deny that certain elements of the story are discomfiting. Its central subject is how the complex relationships within family burn as often as balm. It is a fierce yet poignant evocation of love in a time of impending death.
The narrator is Doharty Black, known as Hart. He is the younger son of Manus and Nóra who have one other child – Cormac. Hart has the looks and Cormac the brains. Neither wishes to take on the family farm in rural Roscommon which Manus has worked since he was sixteen. The 2008 recession sweeps away this option due to debts incurred by boom time investments. The family’s woes are compounded by Manus’s terminal illness.
Hart had wanted to travel but puts such desires on hold to stay on the farm and help out until his father’s death. He idolises Manus – the Chief. There is little love lost between Hart and Nóra. Cormac visits only occasionally yet his influence remains quietly insidious. He guards his independence while expecting all to bend to his will.
Short chapters take the reader through key events over the course of a decade. There is a disturbing attempt at revenge when the teenage brothers blame a neighbouring farmer for their father’s financial difficulties. Later, there is an actress who both brothers are drawn to – yet another example of their lifelong emotional combativeness. All this builds to the dilemma the family face when Manus’s condition deteriorates. He lets it be known that he would prefer his suffering curtailed.
Ireland, with its religious and wider family pressures, is skilfully rendered. The voices captured for the varied cast of characters provide a strong sense of time and place. Depth is built through nuance – scene building and dialogue both sharp and affecting. Cruelties are at times shocking but in context add weight.
Characters are developed through carefully crafted detail. Nóra attempting to tidy up the seaweed on a beach offered a view of her pain that Hart’s antipathy masked. Cormac reworking shared memories gave insight into his desire to control the family story as understood by outsiders. The priest, although rarely present, added layers – subtly shading.
The brevity and wit in the author’s writing deserve to be savoured. In many ways this is a dark tale but tempered by the credence of the representation. There is no pulling back from the realities of a failing body – the emotional pain and physical repugnance endured as a loved one approaches death. Yet this is just one strand of the tapestry Hart weaves as he depicts the years around his father’s death. Life is lived through more than one event, however key.
Any Cop?: Told as a recollection, the reader knows Hart survives. The author’s handling of his tale ensures we care. The prose is never heavy but its impact remains profound. Much fine writing has come out of Ireland in recent years. This story can comfortably sit alongside the best.