Himself by Jess Kidd: if Dylan Thomas had written detective fiction.

This is my review of Himself  by Jess Kidd

In the late spring of 1976, roguish Dublin charmer Mahony saunters into off-the-beaten track Irish coastal town of Mulderrig, “a benign little speck of a place…pretending to be harmless”, “his trousers…ridiculous…wide enough at the bottom to mop the main road”. After years spent in a bleak orphanage, he has discovered his true name and identity, and comes in search of his mother, or at least to find out more about her, the bewitching, wayward teenager Orla Sweeney. So begins a tale of detection with a difference.

Since Mahony has inherited Orla’s powers of clairvoyance, and sees ghosts at every turn, he is likely to glean more information from them than the sly locals with much to hide. Yet it seems that having the second sight does not enable Mahony to see straight away the truth which is partly revealed to us in the brutal hook of the prologue, in which a young girl is savagely murdered by an assailant, but her baby son is mysteriously spirited away while his back is turned.

Usually, I would avoid like the plague a book run through with so much ghostly magic realism. Yet in this first novel, Jess Kidd proves to be a kind of female, Irish Dylan Thomas, sustaining such a vivid imagination, and spinning her blarney with such easy skill, mixing humour with poignancy, that I was won over. This novel is not merely a page-turner to see how it will all end, but a joy to read for the sheer language: when the unpleasant local priest is punished for his worldly cynicism by the appearance of a spring in his library, he tries to look “rigidly unperturbed” as “near the fireplace…a thick layer of frogs seethe in heathen ecstasy where the hearthrug used to be”.

Since the story is “off the wall” from the outset, although managing to convey a good deal about tight-knit, isolated rural communities given to superstition, I found the build-up to the denouement a tad too ludicrous. References to some of the ghosts, like the eccentric ageing actress Mrs Cauley’s long-dead lover Johnnie become a bit repetitive, and phrases including “arse” too tediously frequent, but overall it is a surprisingly good read.

Although somewhat flawed in certain respects, this is a remarkably talented work, more entertaining, humorous and moving by turns, and in fact better written than many a more hyped and “literary” novel.

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