This startling Irish coming-of-age novel begins in violence. A mother, pregnant with yet another child, pulls
14-year-old Grace from a meager home, dragging the terrified girl to the killing stumps, savagely chopping the girl’s long hair with an axe. Sobbing, the girl touches the bloody cuts, her beautiful locks tossed into the dirt, wondering if her mother has gone mad and means to kill her. Her humiliation not yet complete, Grace dons the too-large garments once worn by her father, as shattered by the tearing away of her beauty as the mistaken notion of imminent death. Lynch captures the brooding, fate-battered reality of Ireland’s Great Famine from the first page, a girl sent off to make her way dressed as a male (Tim), a lone figure with no sense of the dangerous journey that awaits her.
12-year-old brother, Colly, brings some small comfort at the beginning of the trek; he has chosen to accompany the shorn and demoralized Grace. The sky rumbles with thunder, a torrent of rain portending the harsh future in a land of great beauty and relentless pain, bereft of sustenance for innocent travelers.
The terrible beauty of the land is captured in lyrical phrases that catch at the heart, moments where even the most wretched circumstances glow with human spirit. Both peace and comfort are short-lived.
Grace gradually understands her mother’s motives, accepting the danger of the road ahead.
A change from female to male in a world unsafe for the fairer sex is a necessary ruse for survival. With each step forward, Colly at her side, Grace passes as “Tim," a hireling enduring her darkest hour,
The suffering along the way is tempered by scenes of astonishing beauty, a boy,
a bandit and a woman meeting every test, bearing every burden, sometimes betrayed by her sex, learning the rough skills, the callused heart of a wanderer.
Throughout Grace’s journey, her feminine limbs are honed, toughened by the determination to survive, her spirit buoyed in unexpected ways.
She encounters characters who reflect both beauty and horror, the faces of friends and foe, even One-armed John, who shares the road and the sly tricks of the itinerant: “He has the look of one who sucks on his tongue… cheekbones held at the angle of want and beauty… his eyes grabbing at the landlady’s backside, as if to eat her haughty flesh.” This is a land of irregular dimensions, where danger lies in wait of carelessness and gratitude is sparse, a landscape bedeviled by insufficiency, a battered woman bearing the marks of her former beauty, lush and fertile, exhausted by too many hungry mouths.
Shorn of the tender shoots of incipient womanhood, Grace learns the meaning of suffering and grief, the casual brutality outside the known; a mother’s touch, no matter how harsh, a precious thing. Near the end of a story painted in both bright colors and dark, four black pages swallow up the truth, a terrain where words fail: ”We cannot hold the truth of the world in our hands.” Grace has endured much, keeping little and shedding the past, good and evil, loss and grief, with every step toward home. Lynch captures it all, from the savage to the transcendent, from horrifying to exquisite.
He inhabits both land and creature with the eye of the artist, each page a discovery, a roiling sea. Life.