Monday, July 13, 2015

THE BLACK SNOW :: Paul Lynch

Holy Zoloft, The Black Snow may be one of the most depressing books I've ever read. And yet... And yet the characters and mood and sense of place leap so ferociously lifelike from the page, there's no turning back or putting it down. And yet Paul Lynch can string words together in such a beautifully unique way, I will always, always read his work. But this was a real toughie. Black snow, indeed.

Barnabas Kane is working in the fields of his Donegal farm with his son, Billy, and farmhand, Matthew Peoples, when smoke from the distance warns them the Kane barn is on fire. Unable to free the cattle inside and dragged from the inferno half-dead himself, Barnabas loses the structure and all of his stock.

But the loss of the stock and the barn isn't the only tragic result of the fire, and soon resentments are festering both in Barnabas as well as his neighbors. An Irish orphan who was sent to live with family in America at a young age, Barnabas is a 'local stranger,' born of the town but now not of it, and just as Barnabas is certain someone set the fire on purpose, the townsfolk question Barnabas's actions during the blaze.

His yard is now littered with dead, blackened cattle, the soot and smoke from the fire contaminate everything, inside the house and out. While his wife Eskra works to remove all traces of the disaster from their physical and mental worlds, nothing she does can stop the black snow from descending on the family, the farm, and, most of all, Barnabas.

Barnabas is determined to save his farm, where he settled upon his return to Donegal in the 1940s with his American wife and son after toiling as a skyscraper iron worker in New York. But no matter what he does, no matter how how valiant (or misguided) his efforts, Barnabas is foiled at every turn. As his resentment and anger grow and his drinking increases, he is caught in a never-ending whirlpool of tragedy that seems determined to suck the entire Kane family into the void.

If this book is such a bummer, why would I ever recommend it so highly? Several reasons. Life is no bowl of cherries. If you want a bowl of cherries to escape from that fact, this isn't your book. But if you like to read about life at its grittiest, to bear witness, so to speak, this is your book. This is your author.

Paul Lynch's writing is good enough reason to read this book. I loved his first novel, Red Sky in Morning, which was one of my top picks from last year. He writes Irish, which means the prose is quite lyrical, and lyrical in a way that's different to my American ears. It's beautiful and devastating as well. Both of those qualities mean I read it more slowly, both to unravel the lyric and to savor it. Like putting a favorite song on repeat. In Lynch's hands, a smoker's cough becomes "his lungs sending to him short sharp messages of resentment."

I could quote from this book all day and into the night, but here are a few of my favorites:

A skim of starlings in the sky above Carnarvan seemed to mimic the rising wreath of drift smoke. The murmuration swung in unison like minds entwined, weaved the sky with giant breathing until the dark pulsed like a lung.

He wandered about by the blackened byre half seeing it or he went inside it and kicked through the tangled remains, looking for clues amongst the pen metal, some of them twisted like question marks to torment him.

The skyscraper boom of New York. They reshaped the sky with their steel, walked girders like gulls. New York below them like a pop-up picture book you could close with your hands. He would listen to the sky's hush through the din of steel, the sibilant forces of the wind as if the sky was breathing. The clouds mute and drifting to lay their shadow slabs upon the city.

Eskra left the field in dew-kissed shoes while the horse walked over to the trough that held upon its rainwater a cylinder of light and when the horse dipped its head into that light it seemed to drink directly the sun's luminance.

I think those quotes only take us to page 40 and I've skipped several marked passages to pick those four. There's a keeper on every page; some a single sentence or mere phrase within one, others long paragraphs of run-on brilliance.

I can't recommend The Black Snow or Red Sky in Morning highly enough. Dark and compelling stories of life between rocks and hard places, fortitude and fierceness against the elements and external powers, loss and more loss; the only way to endure them is through the lens of Lynch's writing.

STREET SENSE: I think by now you have a pretty good idea I recommend Lynch's books. I thought I liked Red Sky in Morning a bit more, but The Black Snow may be staying with me longer. It's a mind-sticker, indeed.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: The mule held himself sure-footed and stoical down that hill and in reward the afternoon sun went to work on his shape. It took the animal's long grey ears and made on the moss a rabbit's head for him and it took the mule's stout body and stretched him out upon the bog until he walked grand and noble, a horse pulling behind him a mountain.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This is one of those times when cover almost doesn't matter (I wonder how creepily bad a Lynch cover would have to be before I would balk?). Fortunately, the cover is a good one, if a tad understated. I have scouted out the covers of Lynch's books of all editions from both the US and the UK and most of them are quite beautiful. I like the cover of the US version, but just look at this fabulous UK cover:

Wowza, right? Even with the somewhat strange font differential. This is the edition I ordered for my shelf, and it makes a good companion for my UK edition of Red Sky in Morning (left), although the US version is also quite stunning (right):

It doesn't matter what version you read, or in what order, just go get your hands on some Paul Lynch.

1 comment:

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

This one is a great place to start, Katie. Either is a good choice, but the more I muse about them, I think I might like Black Snow even better than Red Sky. You really can't go wrong with either one for the grit.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


  © Blogger templates Newspaper by 2008

Back to TOP