by Paul Lynch
The setting for Irish author Paul Lynch's third novel, GRACE, is nineteenth century Ireland during The Great Famine, a story told through the eyes of a girl. On a pre-dawn morning, Grace is jerked out of bed by a mother gone mad and dragged outside to have her hair hacked off with a knife. This eldest child of Sarah Coyle is driven from the only home she has ever known.
Sarah is seven months pregnant, her husband has died, and there are four children who need more food than she can provide. She is out of options. The rain has been unrelenting, the crops are ruined, and then her landlord shows up, a man who ogles Grace, obviously no longer enamored with her mother, who has borne two of his children. Sarah knows she has to act quickly to save her daughter.
After the butchered haircut, Sarah forces Grace to dress in her father's clothes and instructs her to ask for help from a friend in the village on her way out of town. She tells her daughter to take the guise of her 12-year-old brother, Colly, and to find work.
Grace is terrified and loiters out of sight until Colly can catch up and travel with her. Tragedy follows almost at once when Colly drowns as a riverbank gives way in the surge of a flood. What follows is a heart-stopping adventure told through the eyes of a girl on her own. She will grow to womanhood walking the rough back-roads of an Irish countryside sodden with rain and rotting crops. And she will witness the decline of a people desperate to survive a food shortage that will eventually kill a million of them, and lead another million to seek their fortunes in America.
During that terrible time (from 1845 to 1849), many people, like Grace, took to the road in search of work. Grace is a resourceful and moral girl who strives to live honorably even as she resorts to stealing and looting. She is constantly coached by the voice of Colly in her head, the dirty mouthed, proudly independent and irreverently funny brother she mourns.
The book is hard to put down, and it will leave readers haunted with a story that is all the more heartbreaking after a quick Google search turns up the fact that the loss of life could have been prevented, spoiled potato crops or not.
Reviewed by Sue EllisPublished by Little, Brown and Company
The author's gift with language is undeniable. A noun can expertly morph into a verb, sentence diagramming left dangling by its participle. The characters from170-years-ago are authentically imagined and vividly wrought. Here's an excerpt as Grace runs from danger:
She is chased by men from the backyard of a farmhouse into a dark that knows no moon and falls away like a precipice. Shouts noose the air for her neck. Gunshot travels unseen and soundless but for the report behind her announcing what has already passed. Grunt noise and the thunder-plod of footfall and a flaming lamp like some demon eye fixed in the dark upon her breathless singularity, and the way she runs into the cavernous night with nothing but her blanket and bobbing satchel, the accompanying report of a second shot, and how as she runs she tells herself to stop. And she does. Feels herself overcome, realizes in this moment she doesn't care anymore, about any of this, whatever you would like to call it—life, it you will—and so she stops running, stands awaiting the first fist to strike her head or for the shot to strike the kill. She closes her eyes but what happens is this—the two men chasing her like dogs to the perfume of violence run past her sightless in the dark.