Himself by Jess Kidd is the most Irish thing you will ever read, I promise you. There are shady priests, restless spirits and fecking gobshites everywhere, and I loved it. It is beautiful and haunting and sad and slyly humorous, and so, so hard to explain. I believe we call the style of some of this magical realism, but I don’t even want to do that – to pigeonhole this into a category. It is a dark fairytale, a mystery and a love story about mistakes and consequences and enduring truth.
It is 1976 and our man Mahony shows up in Mulderrig, a tiny town on Ireland’s west coast, unannounced and friendless with only a cryptic note and an old photograph of his birth mother, seeking Truth. Mahony has not had a great time of it; now in his early twenties he was brought up by the church and the state and given very little kindness. The villagers welcome him with open arms and try to help… just kidding, this is Ireland so they assume he is here to unearth all of their secrets (he is) and cause trouble (yeah) so they react accordingly. No one even wants to admit that they knew his mother, Orla, who was a teenager who abandoned him as a baby and then disappeared. No one will help him until he meets his partners in adventure, Mrs. Cauley, a wonderful elderly actress, Bridget who was his mothers friend, and Shauna, a bored but lovely young woman wasting her youth in this terrible town. Also, and don’t let me lose you here, there are ghosts. He can see ghosts. Sometimes they help, mostly they don’t. So ghosts are just as dreadful as people, sorry.
Mahony, a handsome, charismatic man-child who I definitely would have tried to date, sets about finding the truth about where his mother is and what happened to her. He is thwarted by a terrible priest, the small town police, and an assortment of village locals with their own secrets to keep. There are also flashbacks to Orla’s story, giving us a great backstory and an insight into the same characters and how they have been moved and changed by twenty-year-old secrets. We learn why Orla was so disliked and feared – she too could communicate with the dead and she used that power to help them expose the secrets of the living, a dangerous and intrusive quality that she obviously passed along to her infant son.
Mrs. Cauley stages an investigation into Orla’s disappearance by directing a play (as one does) with Mahony as the lead, which accelerates the nuttiness and brings the crazy out of the woodwork. There are attempted bribes, poisoned pastry and some direct threats on Mahony’s life. The culmination of all of this upheaval ends in violence and death and love and exposure and acceptance.
This is a debut novel from Kidd, and it is incredibly accomplished. The characters are so sharp and I had to pull myself out of this book every time something trivial like work or sleep got in the way of me finishing it. The mood of this book haunted me, and its small flaws have been entirely wiped from my mind after a wonderful ending. It is hard to explain this book, except to say that I loved it and I think you will too.
Himself – Grade A-