Haunted and shaped by the pasts we’ve had to endure

A Year’s Midnight

Ciaran O’Driscoll

Pighog Press, £9.99, ebook $11.06

Review: Billy O’Callaghan

After 10 years in existence, the small but renowned Brighton-based poetry publisher, Pighog Press, marks its first foray into fiction with an intriguing multi-layered novel by Kilkenny-born Ciaran O’Driscoll.

On a sabbatical from life, George, a failed novelist, and his English partner, Barbara, accompanied by her son from a previous marriage, take a year’s lease on a rural Italian apartment.

Barbara plans to paint, George intends to walk the hills and absorb a culture. Yet from the start, it is clear that their relationship is a troubled one.

George is haunted. With Barbara unhappy and feeling increasingly isolated, he descends more and more into himself. A nearby field captivates him, he glimpses things, shadowy goings-on, sees omens everywhere, and suffers peculiar dreams of talking dogs. His behaviour quickly draws trouble, particularly from his landlord, Rogero, an Irishman himself, caught in a tormented childless marriage with the icy Mathilde, and who has fallen in love with Barbara and perhaps even more so with the fantasy of a happy family.

George drinks too much and lusts after the beautiful and flirtatious Tessa, but it is only when in a chance or predestined encounter he meets her father, Piero, a psychologist turned mystic, that the horrors of his own repressed past fully begin to emerge, in the form of a vile year-dead priestly uncle.

Literature’s rich legacy echoes loudly through this book. In its evocations of nature, the mood of the work is suggestive of uncountable Irish fairy tales, but there are shades, too, of A Christmas Carol, Dracula, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and, most obviously, Dante’s Inferno.

Some of the inferences feel a touch heavy-handed, though, as does the plot’s late plunge into surrealism. Such a direction makes sense in the context of a mind taken to breaking point, but is somewhat let down by the execution. Nevertheless, there is more than enough here, both in the plot itself and in the various subplots, to captivate most readers.

Since breaking through with his first collection, Gog and Magog in 1987, O’Driscoll has established himself as a significant figure on the Irish literary scene. A former monk, he is a widely published and award-winning poet and member of Aosdána.

A Year’s Midnight, his debut novel, is an ambitious, if not entirely successful, undertaking. Ghost story, travelogue, existentialist tale of love and detailed exploration of the psyche all rolled into one, it explores in relentless fashion the major themes of child abuse and how shaped we are by the pasts we have had to endure.

It is also a welcome glimpse of a considerable talent determinedly chasing new horizons.

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