It is early evening when a dishevelled and terrified twelve year old girl bangs on the door of a middle aged Irish priest. Her father has disappeared and we immediately find ourselves sharing the narrator’s intense anxiety. Conor O’ Callaghan’s first novel, Nothing on Earth, is a Gothic tale set in a barren half built estate on the outskirts of a small Irish town. Most of the buildings are in a state of decay before ever being completed, empty windowless hulks populating a rubbish strewn site baked to dust by an oppressive heatwave. The show house had been let to the girl’s family; a family that has aroused much interest in the local townsfolk.
The priest alerts the Garda, calls his cleaner to chaperone, and tends to his visitor as she tells him her disquieting story, drip fed to the reader along with snippets the priest has gleaned from old newspapers in the library, as we go back in time and piece together a haunting narrative.
The family have moved back to Ireland, like aliens, from ‘over beyond’. The priest will later describe the girl as being ‘like nothing on earth’. She lives with her mother and father and the mother’s twin sister. She does not seem to have a name. The family’s social relations are indefinably off kilter evoking the portentous atmosphere of McEwan’s Cement Garden. A litany of disturbing or frankly terrifying events are visited upon the family – disappearances, odd sounds, writing on the window, faces, a burning caravan – and we are left to decide if these are truly supernatural or the product of fevered imagination fanned by the hellish heat and the dusty desolation which they inhabit. They have a strategy for survival; the girl watches telly, the sister carries on with the young night security guard, they sunbathe, they avoid talking about what is going on. The girl, who has been in Germany most of her life, writes odd phrases she has heard, in ink, all over her body.
The priest finds himself in an impossible situation. Realising his vulnerability, he takes steps to protect himself but a conspiracy of events ensures that the girl spends two nights in his house, unchaperoned. There is no question of a sin of commission but he owns up to a sin of the mind. He has noted her emerald eyes, her skin ‘the texture of pure fine suede’, the nape of her neck. He admits to placing his lips on the marks left by hers on a glass and the lemonade burns when he swallows. He is interested in the ink stained scum left on the bath. He is ‘a man as well’, and she is ‘pretty in spades’. In ‘Of Love and Other Demons’, Marquez introduces another middle aged catholic priest charged with the exorcism of a twelve year old girl. Father Cayetano Delaura’s obsession with Sierva Maria de Todos los Angeles hardly bears comparison to the priest’s hesitant and self-confessed interest in the girl, but Cayetano’s ‘greatest demon of them all’ and the priest’s ‘demon on the landing’ would surely recognize each other. The priest locks his door that night, and in so doing commits a sin of omission for which he will never find absolution.
The finger of suspicion inevitably falls on the priest and, in the ensuing inquisition, we come to question the narrative over again. Indeed did the girl, without even a proper name, ever exist? Who were the other people on the estate, one of whom simply melted away in the heat, and others who lived in a house that was known to be empty? Where had everyone gone?
This book provides precious few answers and it is up to the reader to create his own fairytale. I read it as a sad ghost story, bleak and totally devoid of consolation, told in a luminous but economic style in which every word counts, as befits a poet. There is a social message too. The screams of the girl heard through that locked door, screams that will haunt the priest for the rest of his life, will strike a chord with the schoolteacher inhibited by protocol from comforting a child in the playground. We are a society saturated with inhuman stories of child abuse by those with power and authority, including the Church, but we must be aware, when we so effectively lock our doors, that we run the risk of losing our humanity altogether.
Nothing on Earth is available here.
Conor O’Callaghan is an Irish novelist and poet. He was born in Newry in 1968 and grew up in Dundalk. O’Callaghan’s first novel Nothing on Earth was published to acclaim in 2016 and was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. His second novel, We Are Not in the World appears in April 2020. He has also published five collections of poetry. His memoir Red Mist: Roy Keane and the Football Civil War (2004) is an account of Roy Keane’s departure from the 2002 FIFA World Cup squad.
He is a former co-holder of the Heimbold Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University. He currently lectures at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK and distance learning at Lancaster University. He was awarded the 2007 Bess Hokin prize by Poetry magazine.
He lives in Sheffield with his wife, the scholar of the eighteenth century Mary Peace.
Reviewed by David Oakley
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