Book review: Nothing on Earth

A FERAL-looking girl of about 12 turns up in a desperate, filthy state at the house of a priest and from the moment he allows her inside, his world is turned upside down.

Conor O’Callaghan

Doubleday Ireland, €16.99

As he says to his brother, who is giving him legal advice: “it’s the bloody collar, isn’t it? It corners you into a story in which all fingers point your way.”

There is nothing in the priest’s story that is in any way abusive towards the lost child whose father, aunt and mother have disappeared. 

The family were the subject of newspaper reports when the girl’s mother, Helen, went missing.

It’s not clear just what interested the media about this story. 

There is mention of the parents of the two sisters, Helen and Martina, “going the way they did, and then the sisters emigrating. Their eventual return was big news locally, far more so than they seemed to be aware of.”

The priest knew who the girl was as soon as he set eyes on her. He later admits to taking a prurient interest in the family, reading newspaper reports about them in his local library. 

This doesn’t help his case. Nor does the fact that he couldn’t help once peeking at Martina and the girl as they sunbathed topless and drank rosé wine in the garden of the show house they were living in.

But that’s about it. He was scrupulous about locking his bedroom door at night when he went to sleep to ensure that the needy, lonely girl doesn’t come into his bed, as she requests. There are social workers and cops on the case.

This debut novel is strange and beguiling. It’s very well written, conjuring up a weird listless world where the water supply runs dry and mirages are almost possible.

Most of it takes place in a neglected estate, a Celtic Tiger folly, in the middle of a particularly suffocating heat wave. There are descriptions of the estate that are utterly depressing.

“There were pools of hardened cement and chalk. Lots of weeds had sprouted up around the town houses; ragwort mostly... frayed tyres, a mangled aluminium ladder, shale and random scattered scraps of timber and scaffold.”

When Helen disappears, her husband, Paul, takes up with Martina. For Paul, what is odd is how the girl assumed her missing mother’s name and “of how Martina’s presence probably helped to bypass any grief he might have been expected to experience.”

The girl, as she is mostly referred to in this novel, sees recurring graffiti on the house that includes the line, ‘so be it’. She writes in ink on her body phrases such as this. 

She also sees ‘visions’ such as her mother in the garden wearing the bridesmaid dress she had worn at Martina’s wedding. And she hears mysterious sounds in the estate at night.

At one point, the girl asks Paul if he believes in demons. “I believe that if we don’t believe in demons, they won’t believe in us. The day the demons believe in us, we’re in real trouble,” says Paul.

Not a whole lot happens in this atmospheric novel but there is enough mystery to keep the reader interested. And there is the fate of the priest. 

As he says, it was as if the girl “had come running for all she was worth out of some urban legend or ‘real life’ story in one of the magazines you read in a doctor’s waiting room.”

It’s a story that skirts around the issue of clerical abuse. But the abandoned girl has suffered a different form of abuse at the hands of her odd family — abject neglect.


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