Paul Lynch’s new novel, “Grace,” takes place during the first year of the Great Hunger, more commonly known in the United States as the Irish Potato Famine. During that cataclysmic event in the middle of the 19th century, the Emerald Isle lost almost a quarter of its population to starvation, disease and emigration. Though grim in subject, “Grace” is a moving work of lyrical and at times hallucinatory beauty.
At the novel’s outset, the title character, age 14, is banished by her mother, who is pregnant with her fifth child. “The harvest is destroyed,” Grace is told. “You must find work and work like a man.” Her wisecracking younger brother Colly runs away from home and joins Grace on a trek across the rural west of Ireland, from Donegal to Limerick. The result is a bleak picaresque that reads like a hybrid of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”
Grace is a plucky, headstrong survivor, and she survives a great deal in the course of this book, including exposure, malnutrition, muggings and attempted rape. Early on, she loses her brother in a scene so hauntingly understated that the reader shares Grace’s shock and denial. But Colly comes back as a near-constant voice in Grace’s head, badgering her, telling filthy jokes and keeping her, as much as possible, out of danger.
In less capable hands, this device might have become tiresome, but it is of a piece with the ghostly quality of Lynch’s novel. Wrecked by hunger and disease, Ireland has become a land of zombies. “Men now walk the roads following the devil’s footsteps,” Grace observes. For much of the book, Grace and Colly engage in a discussion about the nature of the soul and the afterlife.
During her year-long journey, Grace works as a cowhand, domestic servant, con artist and thief. She discovers love and experiments with religious faith. Lynch does not devote much of his narrative to the political and economic causes of the Great Hunger (don’t look for a history lesson here), but there is an undercurrent of populist ire that resonates with our own turbulent times. A violent burglar who gets to know Grace justifies his actions to her in this way: “Don’t you see what is going on around you? The have-it-alls and well-to-doers who don’t give a f--- what is happening to the ordinary people. . . . This is the way of things now. It could be the end of the world for the likes of us, but to the likes of them, they aren’t bothered.”
Unlike the have-it-alls and the well-to-doers, the readers of this novel will care a great deal about the fates of Grace and her fellow travelers.
Jon Michaud is a novelist and the head librarian at the Center for Fiction.
By Paul Lynch
Little, Brown. 368 pp. $26