Tuesday, July 25, 2017

GRACE :: Paul Lynch

If the purpose of reading is to get from the first page of a book to the last in something of a steady fashion (let's say for the sake of this post "steady" means "in excess of the rate of continental drift"), then reading Paul Lynch is a god damn exercise in futility. Every sentence begs to be read again. Y'all know I'm sweary, but I literally sit and swear to myself at the impossibility of his writing. It's as if he has his very own language the rest of us can enjoy but are not conversant enough to use. I had five book darts on the first two pages, and that was an attempt to show restraint.

Me reading Paul Lynch:

Read a line.
Sit in disbelief at the turn of phrase.
Reread the line.
Read the line again.
"Oh, hell no."
Book dart the line.
Look around for people to read the line to.
Swear again because I don't have my phone to share the line on social media.
Grow a really long beard.
Get sunburned.
Start to become malnourished.
Die (but happy, with a great book in my hand).

Grace is both the name of Lynch's fourteen-year-old protagonist and what she struggles to find on a treacherous journey across Ireland at the start of the Great Famine. The opening is vintage Lynch, dark and shocking, yet so wonderfully phrased it softens the blows to velvet hammers. At early morning's light, Grace's mother rips her from sleep, "arm-hauls" her outside, "force-sits" her on the killing stump and draws a blunt knife.

With too many young mouths to feed in a time of dire straits, Sarah feels no choice but to send her young daughter on the road, both to earn money and to keep her from the roaming eye of a violent gentleman caller. Disguised as a boy and followed by younger brother Colly, Grace sets out across the ravaged land to find a job. Grace is the story of the characters, circumstances and challenges Grace meets on the road and what becomes of her as she blossoms from a girl into a young woman who can no longer hide behind her clothes.

Grace's story is compelling, though often as dreary and haunted as the ruined land, but Lynch's writing is the star:

Not yet the true cold of winter though the trees huddle like old men stripped for punishment and the land is haggard just waiting.

The rocks set into the mountain are great teeth clamped shut to listen.

Into the first leg she steps and then the other and she looks down at herself--such a sight, wishbone legs snapped loose into two gunnysacks.

In the lowlands the pass lazy beds that lie in ridges along the pale hillsides, like the rotting ribs of some dropped-dead beast, she thinks.

An old hawthorn like twisted rope leans out over the river in a statement of bitterness.

They are returning to an ancient wilderness, she thinks, as if nature were weeding the workingmen from her fields. 
Because Lynch writes about the dark and broken places, it's all the more stark, and welcome, when he injects humor into the mix. He does so sparingly, but with great effect. In Grace, he has given multiple characters persistent verbal tics, which I found distracted somewhat from his normal fluidity. This is a minor nit to pick, and overall the work is a master class in wielding words in a way that feels different than any other writer. When you are reading Paul Lynch, you know things will at least feel more beautiful.

STREET SENSE: Another beautiful piece of work from a master wordsmith. Grace is haunting and epic, full of characters, including spirits and the landscape, that set the stage for a daunting coming-of-age story.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Walking the however-long of another morning. The trees that drape their icy beggar-hands. A screaming oak on the slump of a hill and beneath it in a field she sees five digging men. They have turned a mound of snow and earth. The slow and heavy sway of a dead-cart moving towards them. The men spade at the ground and they gale their breaths into the frozen air, the ground like pitted teeth to their effort. And no wonder, she thinks. For why would the earth want to become a dead-house? You'd be stuck having to listen to the chatter of the dead complaining all the time about being lumped in together.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover struck me as odd, since Lynch's prior covers have felt similar and appeared to set the stage for future imagery recognizable as his. Grace's cover is different from the others, but the story also feels a bit different. Taken on its own, the image is a beautiful watercolor of the Irish landscape, and there's nothing bad about that. I would grade it well as a standalone cover, but found it a bit disappointing since I loved his prior covers so much.

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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.


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