I don’t normally review books that aren’t yet published, because it seems mean to tantalise you with something that you can’t yet buy. But HIMSELF is such an extraordinary novel, that I feel I have to write about it.
When a nun from the orphanage dies, 26-year-old Mahony is given an envelope. Inside is a photograph of a young girl, and on the back, someone has written:
‘Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co. Mayo. This is a picture of yourself and her. For your information, she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.’
So begins the story as we follow Mahony back to Mulderrig – ‘a benign speck of a place…pretending to be harmless’ – to find out what happened to his mum. And what a story it is. Jess Kidd is not just a gifted writer: she is a storyteller who has created a cast of characters worthy of Dickens. Mahoney himself is so handsome, that as one man says, ‘with looks like that, the fella is either a poet or a gobshite, with the long hair and the leather jacket and the walk on it.’ And Mrs. Cauley – an 80-year-old woman who lives in a lair of dusty books – hoists her ‘Harvest Festivals’ out of the window when she wants her friend to call. (‘Me knickers, boy. Harvest Festivals: all is safely gathered in.’)
There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in this book, but it is also dark, violent and at times genuinely creepy. For alongside the living, Mulderrig is full of the dead. ‘For the dead are always close by in a life like Mahony’s. The dead are drawn to the confused and the unwritten, the damaged and the fractured, to those with big cracks and gaps in their tales which the dead just yearn to fill.’
And this is what makes HIMSELF such an extraordinary novel. Not only do the dead drift amongst the living, but there are elements of magical realism, as portents strike the town: soot in the fireplaces, armies of spiders and clans of badgers marching down the road. It’s as if Jess Kid is the Heston Blumenthal of literature, kicking down the doors between genres, mixing ingredients that couldn’t and shouldn’t work. Yet they do. HIMSELF is at once thrilling and heart-breaking, tender and vicious, funny and creepy, brilliant and bonkers.
Mulderrig, we are told, is a place like no other. People don’t want to leave. ‘Why would they, when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?’ This is exactly how I felt when I finished the book. I didn’t want to leave Mulderrig or Mrs. Cauley, her pal Bridget or Mahony himself.
I’m sorry that you’ll have to wait till October to meet them all yourself, but I promise you, it will be worth the wait.