Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Dead School (Patrick McCabe)

--The blurb--
"By the author of "The Butcher Boy", a novel shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize. This is the story of Malachy Dudgeon and Raphael Bell, and how the loss of a loved one destroyed their lives."

--The review--
Irish literature, perhaps most famously popularised by Frank McCourt in recent years, often carries a rawness that is not replicated in literature from other countries.  In some ways this is accounted for by its painful history, but the rest of the magical mix is something mysterious and somehow undefinable. This is not to say that Ireland does not produce bad authors, but thankfully for readers, Patrick McCabe is not one of them. He employs a potent combination of poetry and violence in his prose in a way that makes for mindblowing reading, and as a whole, the short chapters and vivid characters contribute to the creation of something compelling and special.

Some reviewers of the novel have found humour in it, but while this is another common characteristic of Irish literature, any humour existing in the novel was lost on me. It is descriptive, harrowing and uplifting in equal measure, confronting reality from multiple vantage points, but humour - even of the black variety - did not seem to feature. 

However, The Dead School is no poorer for this. Malachy and Raphael's respective descents into madness were realistically portrayed and McCabe is equally good at dream sequences, at delineating the frustrations of being a teacher, and at documenting the consequences triggered by various Irish troubles. The author's chosen themes run through the book consistently, not only linking the personages and relationships in the book but also providing a unified framework for the narrative, hooking the reader in a variety of ways. The fabulous relationship between Malachy and Marion is particularly engrossing, filled with laughter and making the reader believe that this is how all relationships should be, and allowing us to hope that their relationship will not meet a sad and violent politically-motivated demise à la Jonathan Coe's Malcolm and Lois, despite the author's various hints to the contrary (McCabe's foreshadowing and hints, incidentally, form another of the long list of his strengths). 

It is therefore surprising that having been a regular face on the scene of contemporary Irish literature since the mid-1980s, McCabe is not better known - and, furthermore, that he has not been shortlisted for any major literary prizes since the 1990s. Those who do not know his work are missing out on The Dead School for its memorable imagery and characters, as well as its major themes of love, loss, change and transience. Life lessons are provided without preaching, and in addition to this, McCabe supplies the wow-factor almost effortlessly. It is to be hoped that perhaps in years to come, the author will continue to turn out books of high calibre - whether or not they catapult him into the spotlight.
Other works by Patrick McCabe
The Adventures of Shay Mouse (1985)
Music on Clinton Street (1986)
Carn (1989)
The Butcher Boy (1992)
Breakfast on Pluto (1998)
Mondo Desperado (1999)
Emerald Germs of Ireland (2001)
Call Me The Breeze (2003)
Winterwood (2006)
The Holy City (2009)

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