WE ARE NOT IN THE WORLD: BOOK REVIEW


We Are Not In the World
Conor O’Callaghan
Doubleday
€15.99
Guilt-ridden for having abandoned his daughter when his marriage broke up, middle-aged Irishman Paddy embarks on a haulage truck journey through France. The purpose of the journey, ostensibly to deliver a load of condiment sachets bound for Wolverhampton, is really to try to restore his relationship with his twentysomething rootless daughter whom he brings illegally with him. The daughter had gone AWOL and Paddy persuaded her to come back to him. His daughter’s lack of ease with the world is graphically illustrated by a tattoo of barbed wire on her arm. But she is not without humour in the frequent banter with her father as she chides him for example on St Paul’s Letter ‘to the chrysanthemums’.
As the truck ploughs the AutoRoute with its tasteless take-away food, ‘their cup of time forever full forever lukewarm,’ the rhythm of the journey unfolds stories and deeply emotive fragments of family history joltingly captured in the stop and start manner of trucking.
The dialogue of the fractious relationship between father and daughter is interspersed with incomplete sentences stabbing at our imaginations. And there are lots of simulated square boxes of text messaging in the novel to synchronise with the clipped prose as his boss Carl texts instructions about tachographs and deadlines, or his brother texts about the whereabouts of his god daughter.
Sometimes the narrative jars as it jumps from second to third person and occasionally there can be confusion as to whether Paddy is referring to his mother or his daughter, as both are named Kitty.
His brother Arthur, the favoured son, was sent to boarding school, effectively leaving home at twelve. This enabled Paddy to spend a lot of time with his mother with whom he shared a very tactile relationship, hinting of the risqué. And as he drives his truck he longs for those lost intimacies of their ‘mutual littoral solitude’ when he used to go swimming with her. But his mother was not always of this world and could be ‘lost in Proust’, which has reverberations for Paddy as, on the road, he weaves in and out of his own past life. Paddy’s brother, a successful businessman, and executer of their mother’s will, was the ‘responsible centre’ to Paddy’s ‘sleazy periphery’. He addresses Paddy as Fredo like Al Pacino’s ill-fated brother in The Godfather. When he coldly puts their aptly named family home Tír na nÓg up for sale, it invokes moments of nostalgia from Paddy.
It is left to the reader to fill in the obvious gaps in the prose. They are there partly to avoid clichés perhaps: ‘Your father would be grateful for a moment of your precious.’ In an interview O’Callaghan said: ‘As writers, trying to write—heaven help us—real literature, as Frost says, “that they can’t get rid of too easily,” the job is not to be competent in what you know you can already do. The job is to actually find a whole new level of selfhood in which, in a way you never knew you were capable of.’ And true to that dictum, in this novel there is original and almost Joycean playfulness with words such as abstract nouns for example being used as activators ‘Every togetherness would arrive…’ and O’Callaghan, an outstanding poet of collections such as The History of Rain and winner of the Patrick Kavanagh award, shows his poetic skills here with Paddy on the fringes endowed with some wonderful insights: ‘Our elders are the buffers between us and our own mortality. Once they’re gone, we’re next. And yet in spite of that, perhaps because of, we’re hardwired to daydream their non-existence into being’.
Published in the Sunday Independent, 21/02/2021.

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Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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