A voice of distinction

This is the Way
Gavin Corbett
Fourth Estate; £14.99

Myth and language define this, the second novel from Irishman turned New Yorker Gavin Corbett.

It is the story of Anthony Sonaghan, a Traveller lying low during a blood feud with his family’s legendary rivals, the Gillaroos. Complicating matters is his shared descent from both factions, for Anthony is one of a brood of “childer made of both the Gillaroo and the Sonaghan”. He belongs to each and yet, in his own eyes, he is “part of no breed”.

This is the Way is thus Anthony’s attempt to take control of his story. “I was thirteen fourteen month in a room in Dublin,” he begins, describing in his distinctive voice the warren of bedsits where he disappears among the nation’s other stateless refugees: an Egyptian, a group of Africans, Polish labourers and undocumented Chinese. Joining him in exile is Arthur, his story-filled but illiterate uncle, and eventually the pair take up with a folklore scholar named Judith Neill.

Judith — herself hailing from the shadow cultures of academia and Protestantism — embodies the central question of the novel: do stories lose their elusive, mercurial power when granted solidity by being written down? As way of an answer, Corbett uses the metaphor of the changing Traveller lifestyle. Anthony, now more or less “settled”, struggles against the monotony of his existence while Arthur, whose adventures in Europe have grown through each telling, is prone to mischievous flights of fancy.

Such a demarcation could easily have rendered the novel quite schematic, yet Corbett’s prose, at first alienating, quickly draws the reader in. It is a poetic affectation on the author’s part rather than the harsh argot of the Cant which might be expected; it is literary language which at times is mesmerisingly effective. Through it Anthony recounts the story of his people, “the stories that went on today and the ones went on before,” as he puts it, robbing them of their power over him and so opening up a future that is yet unwritten.

Though the threat of violence which motivates his Dublin sojourn never really manifests, what This is the Way lacks in plot it more than makes up for in atmosphere. An air of physical decay hangs over everything, from Arthur’s festering hand — where surgeons have attached a toe to replace a lost thumb — to Anthony’s own wretched state of mind.

The near-mythological origin of the Gillaroos and Sonaghans as warring fish in a farmer’s pond also stands in stark contrast to the violence and sins-of-the-father mentality which characterises Anthony’s experience of contemporary Traveller life.

The result of this collision is an accomplished and claustrophobic novel through which storytelling echoes like the promise of freedom.


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