Emily Donaldson reviews The Black Snow in The Toronto Star:
“Paul Lynch’s The Black Snow is, like its predecessor, Red Sky in Morning, a fierce and stunning novel written in chiaroscuro; its darkness always threatening to absorb its light. The Irish author’s gnarled, lustrous prose style is peppered with local vernacular; his literary sensibility an ornate version of the American Gothic of McCarthy and Faulkner. Throw in an elastic attitude to grammar and all of this has a thrillingly defamiliarizing effect: though he’s writing in English, Lynch makes you feel like you’ve magically acquired the ability to understand a foreign language…”
Full review here
NPR’s legendary book critic Alan Cheuse says The Black Snow’s prose is so gorgeous, it makes him want to give up writing…
Here’s the full review:
Former Dublin newsman Paul Lynch made his debut as a novelist a few years ago with a book called Red Sky in Morning, set in mid-19th century County Donegal, where a rage-driven farmer has committed a murder with devastating results. The Black Snow, Lynch’s second novel, returns us to Donegal, though at a later date, and he’s working at an even higher level of accomplishment than before.
The year is 1945. Allied aircraft fly overhead on their way to bomb a Germany in the last movement of its dark symphony of hate and war. On the ground, a farmer named Barnabas Kane, his Irish-American wife, Eskra, and their teenage son Billy suffer what Barnabas suspects may have been a terrible act of arson. Or doubly terrible, we might say, since the fire in the farm’s cow barn not only destroys all of his livestock, but also takes the life of a trusted farmhand who’d rushed in, at the urging of his boss, to try to save the animals.
This by itself would have made a compelling novel: A man and his wife — Barnabas and Eskra — struggling against adversity, the loss of their herd, and the mixed response of the nearby villagers. (Kane is, in the local parlance, a “local stranger” — which is to say, someone who emigrated to America to make his fortune, and then returned to his home county, where in these circumstances he is held at arms’ length by many of the inhabitants.)
As Lynch presents the story, it becomes an out of the ordinary creation, a novel in which sentence after sentence comes so beautifully alive in all the fullness of its diction and meaning that most other contemporary Irish fiction looks sheepish by comparison.
Lynch’s language is rough-hewn and yet beautifully lyrical, uncommonly conducted with as many vowels as consonants, and thus diverging from the raw piercing strength of traditional Celtic diction. I could scarcely read more than a few pages at a time without having to stop and contemplate quitting the writing of fiction myself, rather than compete with passages like Lynch’s description of doomed farmhand Matthew Peoples, who has a face like “a dream of sand … A face like a lived-in map. The high terrain of his cheekbones and the spread of red veins on the pads of his cheeks like great rivers were written on him.”
Or Barnabas’ farm after a big storm, “The sky distant and inert and its lungs blown out.” Or — more weather — the farmer studying the sky and seeing “a ridge of low cloud like dirt snow sided on a road. What it met shined from over the hills, an eternal blue that spoke the world could be perfect if it wanted to.” But there’s danger here, too. Fire can “forge its own weather” and the sound of “the fire’s hunger” as it devours Barnabas’ barn is “like some enormous force let loose upon the world — an epic thing that held within its violence the fierce, rolling energy of the sea.”
Through this landscape of hope and menace Barnabas Kane trundles, a good man hampered by stubbornness, pride and a gargantuan lack of empathy for his wife and son; at one point he risks everything in his life rather than suffer embarrassment. Sentence by sentence we read about how his world comes apart, even as Lynch’s language binds everything together — nature, character, time and the wild paradoxical aspiration of a novelist driven to try and make sense out of the inexplicable.
DA: You’ve recently released your second novel The Black Snow, how has the experience differed from the first?
PL: Everybody talks about the sophomore slump, but I would describe The Black Snow as the sophomore slaughter. Every day was such a struggle — my first act as a professional novelist — and all the while you wonder if it can be done again. I wasn’t right for about two months after I finished and submitted it.
The Black Snow is set in rural Donegal in 1945 and opens with the burning of a byre. That opening is the kind of set-piece that I’ve been keen for a long time to write, the kind of book opening that carries you along for 7,000 words and then sets you down again elated. I’ve no idea if I’ve achieved that but it was certainly the intention. What follows after the fire, and the death of a man, is a simmering cauldron of suspense, suspicion and resentment. The main people in the book are a family that have returned to Ireland after living in New York. One of the things I’m examining is the reality of living the dream once you’ve attained it, and what happens once the mythology has been ripped apart. I realized when I was finished with this book that some might see in it a systematic dismantling of the Irish pastoral. What I do know is that it is a very claustrophobic book — a mystery story, a thriller, an existentialist fable, and quite different to Red Sky in Morning.
DA: The search for the unattainable seems to be a recurring theme of, for want of a better word, Irish-American culture from Fitzgerald’s Gatsby to John Ford’s The Searchers. In both of those examples, there’s the added warning of ‘be careful, you just might attain whatever it is you’re after’. The Black Snow would seem to suggest the trouble only begins when you’ve found this elusive home or community?
PL: Red Sky in Morning took a hard look at the myth of America. The Black Snow does the same for Ireland. I wanted to examine the myth of the Irish pastoral, the myth of romantic Ireland. The myth of community. The myth of continuity. The myth of knowledge and certainty. I liked the idea of taking an emigrant with a dream of Ireland and giving him what he wanted — and then putting it to the test. Does it stand up? The trouble begins during a time when Barnabas Kane, the novel’s central character, takes everything in life for granted. He is not future-proofed. I am very interested in this — how people’s innate optimism blinds us to great and sudden changes. And how we are incapable of dealing with such change. Haven’t we all just lived through such a moment?
I went into this book wanting to do two things — to write a more characterful novel, and to explore the idea of philosophical blindness. It seems to me that however bullheaded Barnabas is, Billy and Eskra play as much a role in the tragedy. It was very tricky to write a story where little is explained and yet each character fully believes their own interpretation of events, and then acts upon it, each one pulling a string that leads inevitably to the tragic conclusion.
DA: The book is set in Donegal, which is also where Red Sky in Morning begins. It’s always struck me as the most intriguing county in Ireland, wild and rugged, perched at the edge of Europe, north but not Northern, part of the South but reaching further north than anywhere else in Ulster. It reflects the absurdity of our divisions here and yet it’s uniquely distinct from it all as well. It seems curious that it hasn’t been featured more in literature beyond great individual writers like Peadar O’Donnell and Frank McGuinness. What interests you about it as a setting physically or psychologically?
PL: Miles Davis has as great line — “I’ll play it and tell you what it is after”. I don’t choose the settings for my books. They are given to me, out of the dark of my own imagination. I left Donegal when I was 18 and it was the last place I ever expected to write about. Somehow, through the workings of memory and imagination, it has been given back to me, reconfigured as a place of mythic power. What goes into the mix? Perhaps, it is the forlorn remoteness. The epic backdrop of mountains and bogland. Its distance from the rest of Ireland.
Such a setting allows me to create two types of time in my novels. There is the present time of the characters who live caught up in the white-hot moment of their lives. And there is a sense of deep, geological time that creates a sense of the ineffable, the tragic world view, the abyss. I think my writing is powered by an enormous tension I feel between the humanist and the post-humanist view. Between the subjectivity of living and and the objectivity of death. I want to put on the page a sense of the absolute centredness that is each life — how important each one of us feels our lives to be. And I want to rest against that a sense of the absolute uncenteredness — the greater objectivity of the universe, that sense of the vast ineffable, the abyss that every life falls into.
DA: The mix of simmering paranoid neighbourly claustrophobia with the agoraphobia of wild nature permeates the book, both in a sense fuelling the same emotions. Is it a case of as the old saying goes, “If God invented the countryside and man the city, then the devil invented the townland”, not in any diabolical way of course but in the sense of being an environment fertile for feuds and envies as well as potential solidarity in the face of hardship? Is that letting cities off the hook?
PL: Human behaviour is human behaviour. As far as I am concerned, it does not change very much. Perhaps, though, it is easier to unmask it in a rural setting. What I like so much about the setting of Carnarvan in The Black Snow is its isolation and spareness. Such a playground allows me to drill down to the more essential stuff — I want to mine for human and philosophical truths as best I can. I’m not sure I could get this kind of material out of a book set in a city. I would find it more difficult. I would be distracted by all that noise and glitter and its surface politics. A lot of writing set in cities is about mapping the moment. Right now, I am not that kind of writer. I want to map what is timeless and unchanging.
Full interview here: http://www.humag.co/features/conjuring-the-abyss
I am very pleased to share this blurb from Kevin Powers, author of Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting and the National Book Award shortlisted novel The Yellow Birds, in advance of THE BLACK SNOW’s release in the US.
Kevin says, “The Black Snow is a staggeringly beautiful book. Immensely powerful, but subtly so. I was mesmerized by it. I read it in one go, but I’ll go back to it for sure.”
Philipp Meyer, whose epic novel The Son was runner-up for last year’s Pulitzer Prize, called THE BLACK SNOW: “A brilliant, hypnotic book. You will lose yourself in the sounds and rhythms — Lynch makes the page sing like the old masters.”
Meanwhile, Ron Rash, author of Serena and The Cove, has said about the book: “Lynch establishes himself as one of his generation’s very finest novelists… The Black Snow is a dark, mesmerizing study in obsession, despair, and secrets too long held”.
As we come closer to the North American release of THE BLACK SNOW, the notoriously tough US book bible Kirkus has given the book a Starred Review — a much sought after designation in the US book industry. The Kirkus Star is reserved for “Books of Exceptional Merit”. In 2013, RED SKY IN MORNING also received a starred review.
The book magazine says of THE BLACK SNOW, “With his second novel, Lynch has a Seamus Heaney ear for the sights and sounds of rural life, making his prose thick and jagged, sometimes ponderous and often evocative. Lynch evokes so many shades of guilt, pride, innocence, righteousness, and punishment that the book might help found a religion….”
In another advance review, Booklist says THE BLACK SNOW is, “at once so starkly brutal and so beautiful that it is impossible to look away” and calls the book, “A stunning tale of retribution and disintegration”.
Meanwhile, a review in Publishers Weekly calls THE BLACK SNOW a “stark tale of tragic consequences” and says, “Lynch’s beautifully intertwined emotional and physical landscapes have a timelessness.”
Pulitzer prize short-listed author of The Son, Philipp Meyer calls it, “A brilliant, hypnotic book. You will lose yourself in the sounds and rhythms — Lynch makes the page sing like the old masters”.
US legend Ron Rash, author of Serena, says about this book,“Lynch establishes himself as one of his generation’s very finest novelists. The Black Snow is a dark, mesmerizing study in obsession, despair, and secrets too long held”.
Meanwhile, Booker prize nominee Donal Ryan, says of The Black Snow: “Some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read. Vivid, unsettling and intensely enjoyable”. To read some of the many reviews of this book in Ireland and the UK, click on the Press link above.
As preparations for Little Brown’s release of THE BLACK SNOW in the US & Canada next May are gathering pace, I am so pleased to share some early blurbs for the book that have come from two truly great American writers.
Philipp Meyer, whose epic novel The Son was runner-up for last year’s Pulitzer Prize, has just said this about THE BLACK SNOW: “A brilliant, hypnotic book. You will lose yourself in the sounds and rhythms — Lynch makes the page sing like the old masters.”
Meanwhile, Ron Rash, author of Serena and The Cove, sent us this: “Lynch establishes himself as one of his generation’s very finest novelists… The Black Snow is a dark, mesmerizing study in obsession, despair, and secrets too long held”.
It’s been a great and busy year with many festivals at home and abroad, and I want to thank everybody who made 2014 such a memorable year, bought my books and came to my events, and to the many people who make such events happen.
Here is the artwork for the North American May 13 release of The Black Snow.
From the Little, Brown website:
The startling new novel from a brilliant young Irish novelist on the rise, who “has a sensational gift for a sentence” (Colum McCann).
In Donegal in the spring of 1945, a farmhand runs into a burning barn and does not come out alive. The farm’s owner, Barnabas Kane, can only look on as his friend dies and all 43 of his cattle are destroyed in the blaze.
Following the disaster, the bull-headed and proudly self-sufficient Barnabas is forced to reach out to the community for assistance. But resentment simmers over the farmhand’s death, and Barnabas and his family begin to believe their efforts at recovery are being sabotaged.
Barnabas is determined to hold firm. Yet his teenage son struggles under the weight of a terrible secret, and his wife is suffocated by the uncertainty surrounding their future. As Barnabas fights ever harder for what is rightfully his, his loved ones are drawn ever closer to a fate that should never have been theirs.
In The Black Snow, Paul Lynch takes the pastoral novel and–with the calmest of hands—tears it apart. With beautiful, haunting prose, Lynch illuminates what it means to live through crisis, and puts to the test our deepest certainties about humankind.
VERY thrilled that Ron Rash has blurbed The Black Snow for its US publication next May. We are big fans of Ron in this house. Here it is:
“Lynch establishes himself as one of his generation’s very finest novelists. The Black Snow is a dark, mesmerizing study in obsession, despair, and secrets too long held.”