Last year, I wrote enthusiastically about Caoilinn Hughes’s short stories. I hadn’t yet read either of her novels but, after the stories, I was looking forward to them. The stories haven’t been published in a collection but, as I noted at the time, at least 8 were available online, most of those either in The Irish Times or Granta. I’d like to encourage you to read some of them.

The short stories, which are varied in theme, style and subject matter, did not give me much idea what to expect from the novels, which are also strikingly different from each other, though having some things in common, as we’ll see. Orchid & the Wasp (2018) is a tale told in the third-person whose central character is a young woman in a hell of a hurry, while The Wild Laughter (2020) is the first-person narrative of a young man in a rut. Towards the end of the first novel, Gael Foess is told by the woman who loves her, Harper, that “it’s hard to be around people you love … but don’t respect” (p. 333; original ellipsis). Harper is speaking about her mother, Kendra, who has just died and whom Harper learned to respect only belatedly. Gael agrees. There are people she loves but does not respect, specifically her younger brother Guthrie and their mother Sive; and she spends much of the novel not being around them, but trying to fix their lives from afar. What Gael particularly doesn’t respect about her loved ones are their wishes. She knows what they need better than they do themselves.

Sive is a composer who has for several years been the principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. When her contract ends, though, there’s no new job for her to move on to. If she wants to stay in Ireland, she’ll just be waiting around for years for another conductor to die, and so open up a vacancy. Gael has a scheme, however, to get some of Sive’s compositions performed internationally. She is smart enough to see that the oboe concerto is the most likely prospect, but she soon finds that she can’t get anybody interested in it unless there is a recording, and to make a recording will cost a lot of money, with no guarantee of a return. Anyway, as Gael eventually learns from Sive, it’s conducting that she misses most:

”Composing I love. But conducting, I’ve come to realize, I live for.” (p. 318)

In the meantime, Gael turns her attention to Guthrie. He has believed since childhood that he has epilepsy but in actual fact he is suffering from something potentially even more dangerous, a delusional disorder. Each time Guthrie has what he believes to be an epileptic fit, he paints a picture of the aura that precedes it and he has given the most recent and the most affecting of these to Gael as a birthday present.

Guthrie’s paintings are done on the wooden tops of old school desks. Instead of taking just the one he’s given her, Gael takes all 5 of the paintings to New York — flying first-class on a ticket she charged to the company credit card of a banker she met in a London club. In New York, by means of a series of high-risk, improbably daring manoeuvres, she manages to arrange an exhibition of her brother’s work in an exclusive gallery. She has five paintings and, for reasons she doesn’t yet know, Guthrie isn’t going to be doing any more. The gallery requires about 15.

Guthrie won’t be doing any more paintings because he’s not going to be having any more fits. He has two children, twins, whom he’s bringing up as a single parent. Gael thinks that the twins have brought about a huge change for the better in Guthrie, but her mother eventually puts her straight. Guthrie is better now because, finding himself responsible for the twins, he’s started to take antipsychotic tablets, something he had always refused to do before.

The twins had been conceived as the result of a sexual assault. Guthrie, whose firm religious beliefs had always been encouraged by his father, was unwilling to have sex with his girlfriend, Ára (pronounced similarly to “aura”) but, as Sive explains in embarrassment to Gael, his reluctance was not enough to stop him from getting an erection, and Ára (who had a history of bullying and “antisocial behaviour”) got pregnant as a result. Sive and her ex-husband Jarleth went to see Ára’s parents. Sive says “at that stage, it wasn’t blackmail” (p. 238) but the upshot was that a 16-year-old girl was forced to carry twins to term against her will, and then to give them up. However bad her previous behaviour had been, that was surely more monstrous than the alternative (as Guthrie saw it) of compounding the sin of the children’s conception with the worse one of abortion. Guthrie, largely through his father’s ruthless determination, got his way and, as Gael had already acknowledged, seemed happier and healthier as a result. Good out of evil, maybe?

On hearing the truth about Guthrie’s children, Gael has second thoughts regarding the exhibition of his paintings:

She should never have involved him. She’d had a dozen alternative plans, before the paintings, any one of which she could have made work. This had been an error. A big one. High time to cut losses. (p. 240)

It’s too late to cancel the show, but Gael needs a lower profile and much cheaper way to live in the meantime, so she returns to Occupy Wall Street, with whom she’d had some contact earlier, when she was looking for an artist capable of producing convincing fake “Guthries”. When she was there the first time she met a woman named Nina, to whom she was tempted to say:

I’m an aspiring one-percenter. It’s only sane to be appalled at the country’s dysfunction but, come on, kid. Calling it out gets you nowhere. Enormous calamaties cause change. Civil wars. Natural disasters. Not street marches. Once customs are established and prejudices rooted, reform is a dangerous and fruitless enterprise, said Rousseau. (p. 220)

Instead, she gave Nina the pithier version. I’ve little doubt that Gael meant most of what she didn’t say, but she seems too perceptive and clued-in to imagine that there’s any point in being “an aspiring one-percenter”. After the spectacular but unrepeatable success of Guthrie’s show, she has netted almost half-a-million dollars, but that’s still a very long way short of membership of the plutocracy.

At first, Guthrie doesn’t want to take the money. He’s worried about losing his dole and healthcare. But he needs to find a place for the children to live that isn’t damp and that has enough room for them to grow up in. And he needs to replace 3 teeth, including an incisor, knocked out when he challenged a thug who hadn’t cleaned up after his dog; Ronan, the male twin, had been about to play with the dogshit. And Gael comes up with a suggestion that appeals to him: to buy a building and set up the Foess Creative Therapy Centre.

When Guthrie gets a visit from the billionaire who bought the first painting for $50,000, Guthrie learns that not only did Gael have fake paintings created in his name, she even had the gift painting duplicated. He doesn’t give her away to Wally, who had ended up with the fake, not the original. (Harper had bought that for Kendra and returned it to Guthrie after her mother’s death.) The love is still there between Gael and Guthrie but now the lack of respect is mutual, or perhaps its polarity has reversed. The novel ends with Gael putting some distance between herself and the people she loves: her brother, her mother — and even Harper.

Like the first novel, The Wild Laughter takes a bleak view of relations between siblings and parents. The bleakness is more obvious here, though: parts of Orchid & the Wasp, particularly the parts where Gael is putting into action her clever plots, could be taken for a light-hearted romp. The narrator is Hart Black, the younger son (about 25 when the story opens) of a farming family in County Roscommon. Hart describes himself to the detectives investigating the apparent murder of the paterfamilias, Manus Black, known to Hart as “the Chief”, in these terms:

”… I’m scared of dogs. I can’t abide my mother. I hate the smell of shite. I’m sick and tired of root vegetables. I’m too good-looking to be a farmer …” (p. 130)

The main points that this self-description leaves out are that he hates his brother, Cormac, and that he revered and sought the approval of the Chief. He thinks of Cormac as the clever, educated son and himself as the good-looking son who is attractive to women. He has been on the dole since he left school, about seven years earlier, and does some work on the farm at his father’s direction. Cormac has no interest in taking over the farm; the Chief would like Hart to keep it on, but Hart says he has no interest in either taking over the farm or in going to university like his older brother. Hart urges his father to go bankrupt and give up the farm, but he doesn’t yet know that the farm has been repossessed and sold by the bank, and the Chief has leased it back from the new owners. As the Chief says:

”Inheritance tax won’t be a burden for my children is all I’ll say. That’s the small favour I done ye.” (p. 114)

The Chief got into financial trouble investing in apartments in Bulgaria and Spain on the advice of a neighbour, Tony Morrigan, who seemed to suffer comparable losses. As an attempt at bloody revenge, Hart led his brother and their cousin Shane in a raid on Morrigan’s farm in which they slaughtered the spring lambs who were due to go to market the next day. Afterwards, the Chief told Hart that he had done Morrigan a favour: it had been a lot more convenient for him to collect the insurance money than to go to the trouble of selling the lambs in an uncertain market. This episode suggests both that Hart has a vicious, vengeful streak and that he’s not all that bright. That the narrator isn’t an entirely sympathetic character is equally apparent in his rough treatment of Gillian, the stage manager at a theatre where Cormac’s girlfriend, Aleanbh, is playing Dolly in Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire.

There are indications, too, that Hart’s telling of the story isn’t always to be trusted. Take his fear of dogs. He tells the priest in confession (as part explanation of his hatred of Cormac) that his elder brother found a dead dog by the roadside, carried it home, broke its jaw and put it around his ankle in bed (p.62). This sounds more like a nightmare than a real memory. When Cormac is being interviewed by the detectives, he takes responsibility for causing Hart’s phobia, but his story is quite different:

I told him if a dog gets a hold of your leg, he’ll bite down till he hears the bone snap. And that’s why you should always carry a stick when you go outside. So that when the dog has you, you can snap the stick. The dog will hear that and will let you go, so he will. You’ve only to hope he doesn’t nick the popliteal artery. (p. 164)

But Hart contradicts this. According to him, the story about the snapping stick was told not by Cormac but by their cousin Shane, and it concerned badgers, not dogs (p. 170). Either way, a fear of dogs is a particularly inconvenient phobia for someone who works on a farm. The day before his trial is due to start, Hart wants to walk along the road from the farmhouse, enjoying his freedom while he still has it. He poisons the neighbours’ dogs, so that he can walk without fear of being attacked. This is not to say that Hart is unusually cruel. Cruelty is part of the way of life. He tells us:

In the roughest weather, when people couldn’t feed their horses, they sure as debt couldn’t fork out three hundred euro for the tidy injection. So they’d take them to the nearest forest and set them loose, let them roam free, Tír na nÓg style. But waterlogged woodland’s no place for horses. They need constant grazing. That’s how the forests came to be littered with dead steeds. (p. 169)

The reader is reminded of this when evidence is introduced at the trial about Hart’s internet searches. Among the incriminating queries as to whether morphine tablets can be dissolved in water, what the taste is like, and whether “suicide victims” are entitled to a funeral, there’s one about the cost of lethal injections for horses (p. 178). Why has Hart being Googling that, or was somebody else using his computer? Cormac and Shane had started an opportunistic business, buying cheaply the horses that other farmers could no longer afford to keep, and feeding them on “the cull” — the substantial proportion of the Chief’s potato harvest that couldn’t be sold to the supermarkets because the tubers were ugly and misshapen. Had Hart been looking into the possibility of sabotaging his brother’s business by killing the horses?

When I first read the novel at the beginning of this year, I thought it was very much a book of two halves. I enjoyed the freshness and inventiveness of Hughes’s writing, as I had in her earlier novel and the short stories. But the setting — impoverished, crisis-stricken, rural Ireland — and the themes — cancer, family resentments, cruelty and the absurdity of rural life — were too familiar. I was sure I had read too many similar stories back in the 1970s, though I couldn’t reliably remember their titles or the names of their authors, and it was territory I didn’t want to revisit. It all seemed terribly out of date, and best left in the past.

My second reading, earlier this week, went a lot more easily. I saw, as I hadn’t first time around, that the retrograde feeling was a deliberate choice: the point was that the crash of 2008 had blasted parts of the country right back into the 1970s, or maybe even into the 1950s. This time, I’m still not convinced that the trial and the law-business at the end of the story are quite convincing. Some of the barristers seem to be risking disciplinary proceedings. But I’m more inclined to give this episode the benefit of the doubt than I was on first reading. I might, after a third reading, write separately about the ending of the story, and the legal aspects, though if I do, it will be on my personal site, and not in a Talk about books post.

Editions: Both novels are quoted from Oneworld paperbacks, published in 2019 and 2021 respectively. One ellipss is original, the others are added.