In this tenderhearted coming-of-age story, John Devine grows from childhood to adolescence in the Irish town of Kilcody. Born in a storm with thunder so loud
that his mother Lily flinched when it struck, John is treated as a typical boy. Quickly realizing what is expected of him, John grows older
as Lily, in order to make ends meet, cleans people’s houses and sometimes takes in clothes to be washed or mended.
With her penchant for quoting chapters from Leviticus and chain-smoking, a fag
ever burning in the seashell ashtray beside her, Lily silently tries to mollify her son’s newest obsession with worms by bringing home a book -
Harper’s Compendium of Bizarre Nature Facts - containing a chapter entitled “The
Secret Life of Parasites.”
John’s fixation with parasites forms the background to his impressionable adolescence.,
but it is exotic Jamey Corboy, with his black jeans, army boots, and floppy hair,
who really seems to offer John just what he needs. A blow-in from Ballo town, Jamey is a loner who sits in the school shelter writing provocative stories in a spiral notebook. Literate and ironic, Jamey enthralls John with his endless knowledge of literature and history, passing him copies of books by Rimbaud and Dante.
But Jamey also has a rebellious streak. Hellbent on celebrating the end of his exams, he drags John to a disco at the Rugby club.
Here, amid the hyperactive rhythmic pounding music, John senses something dangerous about Jamie.
Though Lily, the smoke around her head like some “dissipating halo,” warns John to stay away from that Jamey Corboy, the two embark on a rampage of the local Chapel, incriminatingly videotaped by Jamey.
John’s rite of passage into adolescence is riddled with various sexual experiences and a fair amount of anxiety along the way. John does his best to handle his betrayal of Jamey, terrified that there will be some sort of recompense for his folly.
He must also deal with his mother, who takes to her bed all day long and most of the night, each sickly hour sucking the life from her body until “she shrinks beneath the sheets.”
Then there’s the bulldoggish Mrs. Nagle with her boxes of chocolates and her sweet, sickly perfume, who intuits herself into John and Lily’s life.
Filled with John’s dreams and nightmares - and a fair amount of storm-ridden
symbolism - Murphy’s engaging prose brings to mind the warmth and acceptance of
family and friends even as John confronts life’s various challenges. Irish
small-town life is beautifully portrayed; the fields and whispering woods reflect John’s state of mind as he vanishes into the “will-o-the-wisp,” becoming a ghost drifting through the narrow laneways.
Throughout, John’s friendship with Jamey endures in the form of Jamey’s mercurial stories
written from afar. Despite all the inherent betrayals and eventual paybacks, these stories give John some tough lessons, reminding him about the importance of loyalty and devotion
as well as the strange, often extraordinary flexibility of forgiveness and love.