Two from Canongate

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Himself
By Jess Kidd
Out now from Canongate,
£12.99 hardback, ebook, £10.99

Himself is a lively amalgamation of literary styles — crime thriller, magical realism, Irish trickster, Gothic — and an absorbing, audacious debut. It opens with a woman’s brutal murder described in phrases that are simultaneously horrific and sanctified. Then we’re plunged into the vocabulary of fairy tales as the victim’s infant is absorbed — and protected — by the forest’s flora and fauna.

That child grows up to be a gorgeous, disruptive young man called Mahoney, with “eyes like black sloe berries and eyelashes like a girl.” A disturbing influence among the nuns raising him in a Dublin orphanage, now wanted by the law, he returns to his birthplace, Mulderrig, on Ireland’s west coast, in 1976. He is determined to unmask his mother’s killer and learn the identity of his father.

Mulderrig runs to eccentrics. There’s an elderly actress who’s as sparky and sassy as Angela Carter’s Chance sisters, from Wise Children. There’s a distraught mother mourning the death of her child nearly a decade earlier. There’s a pragmatic young landlady whose strengths unfold with the steadiness of a flower coming into bloom. There is a villainous vicar, and, of course, there is a killer — roused to fresh savagery by Mahoney’s arrival.

But the living aren’t all that Mahoney encounters. He has the gift of second sight. Ghosts abound in Himself, their stories interwoven and integral to the fates of the living. Yet Mahoney’s tragedy is that the one ghost he wants to speak to — his mother’s — refuses to appear. And no one in the village wants her memory awakened: she was their wild child, a teenaged tearaway who refused to hide her illegitimate child, or her own wild self. Her shame (as they perceive it) reflected badly on everyone.

Kidd writes beautifully, moving adroitly through time, as far back as 1944, and concluding in 1977. Soaring passages swooping over Mulderrig as it sleeps evoke Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, which feels like a strong — and happily so — influence.

For example, here is Kidd describing an old, once glorious house: “The woodworms sing in the skirting boards and the moths hang out of the curtains. The mice have the run of the guest rooms, shredding blankets, skating in the basins and nibbling the soaps.”

Some reviewers have said that Himself suffers for not settling on one genre. Looked at another way, what a pleasure it is seeing a new voice trying out all its octaves, singing a range of tunes with exuberance and skill. Despite its darkness, Himself is delightful, and reaches a satisfactory conclusion — no small feat, given the number of novels out there that fail to stick their endings. Recommended.

****

Himself, with its ghosts and questing hero, is haunted by loss in the aftermath of death, exploring what happens when the chasm created by absence threatens to swallow the survivors. Here is a memoir viewing loss from the other side, the chronicle of a death foretold, the story of a terminal diagnosis, and a winding down.

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Dying: A Memoir
By Cory Taylor
Out now from Canongate; £12.99 hardcover
also available as an ebook

Cory Taylor, who died in July 2016, was a celebrated Australian novelist. Her novel Me and Mr Booker was a regional winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and My Beautiful Enemy was shortlisted for Australia’s top prize, The Miles Franklin Award, in 2014.

Dying opens with a forthright discussion of euthanasia. Wishing to be prepared and proactive, Taylor purchased drugs online and wrote a goodbye letter expressing abounding love to leave her family.

She’d developed melanoma in the part of her brain controlling movement on her right side. They spread to lungs, skin, liver and urethra. Her initial diagnosis had come a decade earlier, and the progress of her cancer was slow. She kept the extent of her illness a secret from everyone but her husband, trying to protect her then teenaged sons. Eventually her condition deteriorated too much for artifice.

She wrote this book because: “Things are not as they should be. For so many of us, death has become the unmentionable thing, a monstrous silence. But this is no help to the dying, who are probably lonelier now than they have ever been. At least that is how it feels to me.”

Taylor’s prose is straightforward, her pragmatism admirable. She is also funny, and emotive without being manipulative. She describes the natural impulse to reflect on your past when you’re dying, to write your own version of things to set the record straight — or straight as you see it. The second of the book’s three sections functions as a potted autobiography, though personal stories are woven throughout.

These tales include adventures embraced and skipped, roads travelled or forsaken. A life, in other words, like every other. She takes stock not only of her progress, but of her parents’ fractured marriage, and even her medical history. What if she’d surrendered her leg when the first melanoma appeared — might she have outwitted death a while longer?

There’s not a scrap of sentimentality in Dying. There is, as Margaret Drabble points out in her endorsement, “an eloquent plea for autonomy in death.” Taylor closes by imagining her end as the final scene of a film. In common with everything she’s written to that point, it is dignified, beautiful, and unforgettable.

From our birth, we’re dying — making this short, potent memoir a must-read.

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