Book Review: 'Darling Jim' by Christian Moerk

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By Daniel Mallory
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 10, 2009


By Christian Moerk

Henry Holt. 288 pp. $25

"Accursed who brings to light of day/The writings I have cast away!" So warned Yeats in 1908. A century later, those dusty words are lost on Dublin postman Niall Cleary, as he retrieves from the dead-letter bin a bulging envelope addressed to "Anyone at all." The signatory: Fiona Walsh, whose ravaged corpse was recently discovered in a prim suburban house alongside the bodies of her sister and aunt -- victims, it seems, of a triple homicide. Fiona's handwriting, ragged and wrought, hurtles across pages stained with blood: "My time is short," she vows. "We'll die in this house because we loved a man named Jim." And so Niall sinks into his chair, sure "he wouldn't move until he'd reach the last page."

Neither will the reader of "Darling Jim," the spellbinding new novel from Danish-born, Brooklyn-based Christian Moerk. Aglow with fairy-tale inflections, this hypnotic, neo-Gothic suspense story unfolds like a hothouse bloom, lush and pungent; it's a sprig of nightshade, all petals and poison. And it heralds the arrival of an astonishingly gifted storyteller.

Itinerant bard Jim, the lithe, sloe-eyed Casanova prowling the murky margins of Moerk's tale, has blown into coastal Castletownbere astride a comet-red vintage motorbike. By day, he entrances the Walsh women -- first Fiona, then her sisters Aoife and Róisín, and finally their shy maiden-aunt, Moira. At night, he unspools folklore in the village pubs: sinister legends of Celtic princes and deathless wolves, wracked castles and doomed love. "In whatever time I may have left," remembers Fiona, "I'll always recall the hush that preceded Jim's story that night. For, in a sense, it was the last moment of peace the three of us would know."

Darling Jim Quick, of course, is not what he appears. As the Walsh sisters exhume his murderous past, he romances the besotted Moira; meanwhile, Fiona's diary leads Niall to Castletownbere, where another journal completes the story.

Two diaries, then, alongside a clutch of spinsters, virgins and villains, all ranged across an Ireland of foamy bays and transistor radios, midnight forests and punk musicians. Time slips and blurs in "Darling Jim," which fixes its events "not so long ago," and Moerk tweaks the creaky conventions of Gaelic myth even as he honors them: Niall makes a noble if hapless knight-errant; ghostly voices in the CB ether inform and advise the Walsh girls; a crippled prince of legend returns as an aristocrat in a wheelchair.

Sly, wry and utterly original, "Darling Jim" is the stuff of alchemy, missing only the perfect epigraph: "Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams;/Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round."

Mallory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford.

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