In the past year, I’ve been captivated by a series of impressive new books by Irish authors. There has been powerful fiction from debut authors like Danielle McLaughlin and Gavin McCrea as well as exciting new novels from established voices like Edna O’Brien, John Banville and Anne Enright. Not only have novels by writers such as Gavin Corbett, Belinda McKeon, Kevin Barry and Sara Baume delivered powerful stories, but these books meaningfully break form to fashion a new kind of writing. Paraic O’Donnell’s writing in “The Maker of Swans” is also resolutely its own thing. I wouldn’t exactly categorize it under that flabby moniker ‘experimental’ – nor would I categorize it as anything except a novel. A grand rural house presided over by a mysterious man may sound like a set up straight out of classic fiction, but the way O’Donnell tells it makes this story so strikingly compelling.
The master of the house is Mr Crowe who possesses rare indeterminate skills, a substantial library and a pen that once belonged to Shelley. He is attended to by a faithful butler named Eustace whose duties extend beyond that of a normal servant as is made clear in the novel’s dramatic opening. Mr Crowe arrives home very late after an evening of indulgence with a sultry singer in his car and a jealous man in pursuit. The jilted lover soon lies dead on the lawn and it’s up to Eustace to take care of the body. This is a tale of murder, kidnapping and mystery, but it’s more about art, language and literature. What sacrifice is needed to create a beautiful work of art? Do words have the power to really codify experience and the physical world? How do great books help us straddle the line between the conscious and unconscious? Is the life captured in art true or false? None of these questions are raised overtly within the story, but rise subtly within the narrative and the labyrinthine path it takes to a strangely unsettling climax.
Central to the story is a mute girl named Clara who (like many of the house’s residents) is seemingly ageless and lives there under Mr Crowe’s guardianship – although she is much closer to Eustace. She treads lightly between the real world and dreams making her an avid recorder of fantastical tales. Her abilities for recall are unparalleled making it is a favourite game in the household to pick any book from Mr Crowe’s large library and Clara will write down the opening lines from memory. This is how her passion for reading is described: “The books she loves most are those that seem somehow complete, their worlds proximate and habitable. There is an ease in entering those other lives, in feeling herself enclosed by another consciousness. It is strange, that unruptured intimacy, like possessing a second skin.” This is certainly anyone’s ideal reading experience!
The novel takes many divergent paths including a heartrending back story of Eustace’s origins and a tense section where Clara is incarcerated by a sinister figure named Nazaire and his ailing employer Dr Chastern. Yet, the story always circles back to Mr Crowe, his mysterious abilities and the seemingly sacred position he holds. Crowe is simultaneously a progenitor of the world’s best writing and the embodiment of fiction’s greatest characters from Mr. Rochester to John Silver to Ted Hughes’ trickster Crow. He’s rambunctious, lustful and charismatic. Both artist and muse he believes that we should “Never leave a void where something may be written.” It’s as if his ability to perfectly encapsulate the beauty of life can give meaning to all that is seemingly meaningless.
The experience of reading “The Maker of Swans” is something like that hypnagogic state of consciousness where the familiar world is slightly bent and it feels like anything can happen. There appears to be an overriding logic although it never becomes clear. Unlike other cerebral writers such as David Mitchell who feel it’s necessary to show the mechanics behind their fantastical schematic landscapes, O’Donnell thankfully never lays out the nuts and bolts of his story. He is very good at creating intrigue so even if I didn’t understand what was happening I wanted to know what was going to happen next. What also drives the story are bursts of humour and some truly beautiful figurative writing where wet “cobbles have the muted gloss of eel skin.” This is a fantastically inventive novel that purposefully builds new paths for fiction and it’s also another fine example of the exciting new writing coming out of Ireland.