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‘Red Sky in Morning’ queasy reading, then intoxicating

The plot of Irish author Paul Lynch’s first novel, Red Sky in Morning, is starkly simple: Coll Coyle, a poor tenant farmer in 19th-century Ireland, kills the son of his landlord and is pursued by the landlord’s men to the ends of the Earth. It all seems so familiar because Lynch rolls out Irish-novel stock figures who were hackneyed even before Maria Edgeworth wrote Castle Rackrent more than 200 years ago.

We get the pointlessly cruel tyrant figure in Desmond Hamilton, who, when he’s stopped on the road by the angry young Coyle, doesn’t need two minutes before he’s blurting out enough blasphemies to make Gandhi take to fisticuffs. “Your bones I’m going to break and your neck I’ll have snapped on a rope,” he snarls. “And I’ll take your wife and cut the child out of her and fill her with my own seed and I’ll take that other snotty scrag you call a child and bag it from a bridge and you can all go to hell.” And we get the adamantly self-centered fugitive hero whose determination to keep running at any cost is stylized as vaguely admirable, even though he knows his family will be the first people the landlord’s men will punish.

Then there’s the lead henchman, John Faller, easily the novel’s most memorable creation, gangly, spade-handed, a dark, malevolent figure: “No man to be messing with. No man at all. . . . He was known one time to have twisted a whipcord round a horse’s tongue, tore it clean out by the root.”

None of this is even vaguely original, and there’s not a single character in the book who has an actual reason to do what he does. But remarkably, Lynch’s distinctive narrative voice carries us along as though hypnotized. It’s lush, febrile and overwritten to such a degree that Lynch almost seems to be pulling some very wry Irish prank. Stream water is “susurrous on the rocks like watching whisperers,” a dead body is “resplendent in its selenic and soaking nakedness,” and things are “coffined” and “planked” instead of “contained” and “stiff.” It’s a voice that can also regularly turn a beautiful phrase, as when the terrified fugitive watches others walking around in perfect freedom, “each step a moment that expanded in time like an eternity that was not his to live in,” or the mention of rain “that knows nothing but the pull of the earth.”

Red Sky in Morning is queasy reading at first, and readers unfamiliar with this loquacious strain of Irish fiction may not stick around long enough to experience the rich intoxication it eventually pro­ duces. They should, though, because a debut as passionate as this one is a transporting experience.

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