Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme created by Renee at It’s Book Talk. It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago.
Today I’m reviewing a book that was on the shortlist for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2018 – Grace by Paul Lynch. I had intended to read all of the shortlisted books before the winner was announced at the Borders Book Festival in June but I fell two short – this book, and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, which I still have to read.
Grace was published in hardback, ebook and audiobook on 11th July 2017 and is now also in paperback. You can find purchase links below.
About the Book
Early one October morning, Grace’s mother snatches her from sleep and brutally cuts off her hair, declaring, ‘You are the strong one now.’ With winter close at hand and Ireland already suffering, Grace is no longer safe at home. And so her mother outfits her in men’s clothing and casts her out. When her younger brother Colly follows after her, the two set off on a remarkable journey in the looming shadow of their country’s darkest hour.
The broken land they pass through reveals untold suffering as well as unexpected beauty. To survive, Grace must become a boy, a bandit, a penitent and, finally, a woman – all the while afflicted by inner voices that arise out of what she has seen and what she has lost.
Format: Hardcover, ebook, paperback (368 pp.) Publisher: Oneworld Publications Published: 11th July 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction
Find Grace on Goodreads
It has taken me quite a few weeks to finish Grace and I’ll admit I did struggle with it at times, finding myself skimming the last few chapters. There always seemed to be another book that was more demanding of my attention or more in tune with my reading mood. However, I have now finished it and the book is certainly notable for its lyrical, poetic language, imaginative metaphors and at times impressionistic style (most clearly illustrated in the chapter entitled ‘Crow’ which approaches stream of consciousness).
Some examples of the book’s striking descriptive language:
‘The rain comes yoked to a hooded sun, unfastens and falls like a cloak.’
‘Hedgerows huddle along the road and mutter the breeze like watchers.’
‘Rain suddens heavy and tuneful, makes all the earth sing a blind song of itself.’
And this arresting metaphor, as Grace desperately seeks shelter at cottages she passes on the road:
‘Every ear listening for the sound of coughing, for sickness tramps through the snow and leaves footprints and when it knocks at your door it wants to come in, lean over the fire, take a sup of your soup, lie down on the straw, spread itself out, and bring everybody else into its company.’
The book depicts in harrowing detail the intense suffering of the Irish people during what came to be known as the ‘Great Hunger’ or ‘Great Famine’ between 1845 and 1849 when the potato crop failed in successive years. Each day became a struggle for food, warmth and shelter and people were forced to steal, beg or worse to find sustenance. Through Grace’s eyes the reader witnesses the dreadful scenes of starvation, disease and death and the appalling contrast between the rich unaffected by food shortages and the poor of the towns or countryside reduced to destitution.
Grace’s brother, Colly, becomes her ever-present conscience, guiding her thoughts and actions with, at times, remarkable insight and always with impish, black humour. Grace is a story of courage, despair, suffering, cruelty and resilience. Towards the end of the book, a seemingly miraculous and life changing act of mercy turns out to mask something baser. However, the concluding pages of the book suggest there may be hope of something better.
For me, Grace was definitely a book to admire rather than to love. However, I’m aware that there are many readers who have both admired and loved it. It certainly merits its Goodreads description as ‘an epic coming-of-age novel and a poetic evocation of the Irish famine as it has never been written.’ Furthermore, I can definitely understand how its lyrical language and the nature of the events it depicts would have attracted the admiration of the judges of The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. However, I’ll confess that it is my least favourite of all the shortlisted books I’ve read.
In three words: Lyrical, harrowing, immersive
Try something similar…The Good People by Hannah Kent (read my review here)
About the Author
Paul Lynch is the prizewinning Irish author of two previous novels, Red Sky in Morning and The Black Snow. Red Sky in Morning was a finalist for France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (Best Foreign Book Prize). The Black Snow won the French booksellers’ prize, Prix Libr’a Nous, for Best Foreign Novel. He lives in Dublin with this wife and daughter.
Connect with Paul