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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Little, Brown & Company, 288 pages, $25 (release date 11/5/13)

This is a most unusual book. Let me start with a quote from early in the book: "The water fell bathing gently all in its domain, the trees and the fields and the stone sill and the still seeping blood, rivulets running crimson towards the maw of the welcoming earth."

Paul Lynch is Irish, but the first thing I heard was Welshman Dylan Thomas's cadence. The grit and bleak portrayal of Ireland sometime in the 1800s reminded me of "There Will Be Blood," and the play of words reminded me of "Deadwood," each exulting in a language of its own. The recent death of poet Seamus Heaney was a reminder of the great poetical tradition of Irish works. Red Sky in Morning seems mythical, with a song-like telling.

The storyline is fairly straightforward. Coll Coyle is a young man, a husband and a father. He is a tenant on an estate. Inexplicably his family is evicted from the land they have lived on for generations. Young Hamilton, who inherited the land from his father, and his manager, John Faller, are inflexible in their stand.

Coll's anger builds and he goes after Hamilton, whom he accidentally kills. Suddenly he must flee; there is no court of next resort. He must leave his young family without a word of goodbye. One of his last sights is of his brother being tortured by Faller to learn Coll's whereabouts. Like the horrors in a grim fairy tale, Coll then encounters strange and dangerous people and situations. 

In an almost supernatural way, Faller tracks Coll. Coll hopes his new acquaintance, The Cutter, will help him escape. All Coll wants to do is eventually earn a little money, settle somewhere, and send for his beloved family. Coll and The Cutter traverse many levels of hell in search of this goal.

It's almost distracting how lovely Lynch's words are compared to the bleakness they often describe. For example, Lynch's description of the Irish landscape hits like a hammer: "Sedge scrunched under horse weight and the land opened to the bog, the encroached horizon of slumping dun hills and then they were riding upon the moss."

Coll is running away not only from the hand of justice in the form of Faller but also from a perceived cowardice on his part. He runs not to freedom but to encounters with death time and again, especially on a harrowing trip in the hold of a boat headed to America. On the other hand, Faller willingly brings death with him. He has a rather somber view of life: "The price of life is the burden of your own weight and some people are better off without it."

Each page is a revelation but Lynch reserves the last few pages for a final twist, his exclamation point to his story on the waywardness of life. This is a book rich with thoughtful and lyrical language, a grim and poignant story, and a reward for the reader who perseveres.

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