In his novel Grace, Paul Lynch recreates Ireland during the famine. The writing is gorgeous, the protagonist, Grace, memorable, the descriptions of what she experiences while on the road crushing.
Think of a journey story set in a Dystopian world, such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Consider that the story is history, that the starvation, despair, disease, and the ever-present threat of death are historical.
Realize that government and the wealthy could have alleviated the suffering. It is a disturbing realization of how those of means and comfort justify their selfish self-interest. Then consider the great need in the world today, in America, in your own hometown, and know that nothing has really changed. We still turn a blind eye and hold to 'truths' about self-reliance and just deserts.
Grace's mother provides a cottage for her children through an arrangement with Boggs, who visits her as payment for his largess. But as Grace nears puberty, Boggs notices the girl. One night Grace is roused and her mother shears off Grace's hair and orders her to dress in men's clothing. The next day her mother insists she eats a rare meal of meat and orders her out of the house to find work as a man, hopefully to return with full pockets.
Confused and unwilling, Grace hangs around and is joined by her younger brother Colly. Colly instructs Grace on manliness, how to smoke a pipe to damp the hunger, and his chatter fills the void. They seek out empty huts or animal sheds for shelter, shivering in the cold. After an accident takes Colly, his voice and comments are still heard by Grace, become a part of her, and she answers back in whispers.
Grace journeys from town to town, picking up work where she can. She mimics men's behavior while noticing the swelling of her breasts. She passes through villages where the starving hawk their shreds of clothing and emaciated children stand listless. She finds herself with rough company, thieves, men who have detected her sex and follow her, and finally Bart, who becomes her protector.
Bart and Grace travel across the country, to people and places from his past, hoping to find work, to learn there is nothing left of the Ireland he had known."This is no way to live."
"Don't you see what is going on around you? The have-it-alls and well-to-doers who don't give a fuck what happens to the ordinary people," Bart tells Grace. "The people are living off hope. Hope is the lie they want you to believe in. It is hope that carries you along. Keeps you in your place. Keeps you down. Let me tell you something. I do not hope. I do not hope for anything in the least because to hope is to depend on others. And so I will make my own luck. I believe there are not rules anymore. We are truly on our own in all this." And at the last, "The gods have abandoned us, that's how I figure it. It is time to be your own god."
Grace is nearly dead when she is rescued by a disturbed religious cult leader, then must find the strength to escape her rescuer. She returns to find her family home deserted. The book ends with Grace, age nineteen, the famine over, pregnant and living with a man she trusts, with hope for the future.
Lynch has accomplished something remarkable in this historical novel, for he not only has created a memorable protagonist and a story of growing up, not only a vivid picture of Ireland during The Great Hunger, but he has given readers a book that raises our awareness of suffering and how, in the past and in the present, every one of means who turns away is responsible.
I found this one of the most memorable novels I have read this year.
I received a free ebook from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
by Paul Lynch
Little, Brown & Company
Publication July 11, 2017
$26 hard cover