IN THE PROVINCE OF SAINTS

By Thomas O'Malley

Little, Brown. 306 pp. $23.95

In the Province of Saints is sometimes so sad that you want to look away, but it's always so beautiful that you won't miss a line. Indeed, while reading this story about an Irish boy caught in a disintegrating family, I often felt that only the quiet poetry of Thomas O'Malley's style made it bearable. In one flawless paragraph after another, the most ordinary, pathetic and dismal moments are sanctified.

The setting lends itself to that kind of treatment: Even in the 1970s, rural Ireland is still thick with fairy lore, and the old-fashioned ways of simple laborers seem quaint despite the grinding poverty that keeps them stuck in the past. In the opening chapter, narrator Michael McDonagh remembers a late frost when he was 9 years old: "No one was prepared for snow, most especially the distraught farmers. The sudden deep chill killed livestock as well as crops. In the morning the small frozen bodies of lambs lay shrouded in white all across the hillsides and fields; clusters of sheep, their fleece now suddenly and noticeably yellow against the backdrop of white, moved in and around them bleating softly. I stared from my bedroom window, disturbed but in awe of the storm's strange beauty."

What follows are a number of very short, masterfully drawn episodes, moments from the next five years of Michael's life. Several of these episodes appeared previously as short stories in literary journals, but, woven together, they attain far greater emotional impact by tracing the years when Michael's life was shattered by discoveries thrust upon him amid the collapse of his family's home. Try as he might, he couldn't block the rumors about his father's relationship with a local woman who died in her sleep. He couldn't ignore the cancer that wasted his mother's mind and body. He couldn't turn away from his uncles' involvement in the IRA.

O'Malley records all this in a voice at once innocent and experienced, blending the boy's persistent hope with the adult's tragic knowledge of what's to come. This is a world, he writes, "that vacillated between rapture, humor, and despair." For young Michael, it's a time when the threat of losing his dog can momentarily blot out the greater losses gathering on the horizon. A few pleasant moments with his mother between spasms of wracking pain are enough to imagine that she must be getting better. And always, his love for his errant father obscures what he knows on some deeper level about the man's character.

That conflicted affection comes across powerfully when Michael's dog kills a sheep that belongs to cruel Mr. Flaherty, a neighbor who uses the incident to humiliate and threaten the McDonaghs. "The rain came down faster and harder and my father pulled up his collar and bundled me against his side," Michael remembers. "I was much too big for it now, yet he did it anyway. He staggered, half ran up the land until Flaherty's voice fell away behind us. Father's heart thumped loudly as I banged against his chest and ribs, and his feet hammered the lane. He held me tighter, so tight the rain could not touch me, so tight I could hear nothing at all, and still in that impenetrable space, I could smell Father's fear."

Far earlier than anyone should have to, Michael confronts life-and-death decisions, some spun by the tragedy in his own house, others inspired by the terrorists starving themselves in a Dublin prison. He has a chance to resist the violence creeping into his village, but only by calling even more hardship down on his family and sealing his own separation from them. Ultimately, what keeps us riveted is O'Malley's horrible honesty about the way we resent our parents for not being perfect, for being selfish, for getting sick and dying on us.

Just surviving seems like enough to justify a place in this province of saints. During one of many bleak moments in his adolescence, Michael describes "all of us squinting through the glass, searching the dark churning horizon for some faint promise of light." O'Malley never magnifies that faint promise, but the beauty of his writing keeps the search in tight focus. With this debut novel, he makes a striking addition to what seems to be an ever-expanding collection of masterpieces about Ireland's Troubles -- perhaps the only consolation to rise from the country's modern agony. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.