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By Paul Lynch
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Early one October morning, Grace’s mother snatches her from sleep and brutally cuts off her hair, declaring, “You are the strong one now.” With winter close at hand and Ireland already suffering, Grace is no longer safe at home. And so her mother outfits her in men’s clothing and casts her out.
When her younger brother Colly follows after her, the two set off on a remarkable odyssey in the looming shadow of their country’s darkest hour. The broken land they pass through reveals untold suffering as well as unexpected beauty. To survive, Grace must become a boy, a bandit, a penitent and, finally, a woman — all the while afflicted by inner voices that arise out of what she has seen and what she has lost.
Told in bold and lyrical language by an author who has already been called “one of his generation’s very finest novelists” (Ron Rash, author of The Risen), Grace is an epic coming-of-age novel and a poetic evocation of the Irish famine as it has never been written.
This flood October. And in the early light her mother goes for her, rips her from sleep, takes her from a dream of the world. She finds herself arm-hauled across the room, panic shot loose to the blood. She thinks, do not shout and stir the others, do not let them see Mam like this. She cannot sound-out anyhow, her mouth is thick and tonguing shock, so it is her shoulder that speaks. It cracks aloud in protest, sounds as if her arm were rotten, a branch from a tree snapped clean. From a place that is speechless comes the recognition that something in the making up of her world has been unfixed.
She is drawn to the exit as if harnessed to her mother, her body bent like a buckling field implement, her feet blunt blades. A knife-cut of light by the door. Her eyes fight the gloom to get a fasten on her mother, see just a hand pale as bone vised upon her wrist. She swings her free fist, misses, swings at the dark, at the air complicit, digs her heels into the floor. Will against will she pits, though Sarah's will now has become more like animal power, a secret strength, she thinks, like Nealy Ford's ox before he killed it and left, and now her wrist burns in her mother's grip. She rolls from her heels to her toes as she is dragged out the door.
What comes to meet them is a smacking cold as if it has lurked there just for them, an animal thing eager in the dawn, a morning that sits low and crude and gray. Not yet the true cold of winter though the trees huddle like old men stripped for punishment and the land is haggard just waiting. The trees here are mountain ash but bear not the limbs of grace. They stand foreshortened and twisted as if they could find no succor in the shallow earth, were stunted by the sky's ever-low. Beneath them pass Sarah and her daughter, this girl pale-skinned, fourteen, still boy-chested, her long hair set loose in her face so that all her mother can see of her are the girl's teeth set to grimace.
Her mother force-sits her on the killing stump. Sit you down on it, she says.
It seems for a moment that a vast silence has opened, the wind a restless wanderer all times at this height is still. The rocks set into the mountain are great teeth clamped shut to listen. In the mud puddles the girl is witness to herself, sees the woman's warp standing over her gray and grotesque. The spell of silence breaks, wing-flap and whoosh of a dark bird that shoots overhead for the hill. She thinks, what has become of Mam while I slept? Who has taken her place? Of a sudden she sees what the heart fears most—pulled from out of her mother's skirt, the dulled knife. And then out of her own dark comes her brother Colly's story, his huge eyes all earnest, the story of a family so hard up they put the knife to the youngest. Or was it the eldest? she thinks. Colly, always with the stories, always yammering on, swearing on his life it was true. Quit your fooling, she said then. But now she knows that one thing leads to another and something has led to this.
She hears Sarah wheezing behind her. Hears the youngers creep open the door to peep. She thinks of the last living thing they saw put to blood, the unfurling of the goose into arching white as it was chased, rupturing the air with shrill. The eerie calm of that bird with its long neck to the stump and their sister quiet now just like it, the same blunt knife that made such long work. And Boggs that time waiting. The way he picked them clean. She sees the blade come up, becomes an animal that bucks and braces against her mother.
The rush of Colly then, this small bull of a boy twelve years old, his cap falling off, yelling out his sister's name. Grace! She hears in his voice some awful desperation, as if to speak her name is to save it from the closure of meaning, that as long as he is sounding it no harm can be done. She feels the swerve towards an oncoming dark, Colly tugging at his mother, the way he gets an arm around Sarah's waist until she makes light work of him, puts him to the ground. Then she speaks and her voice is shaking. Colly, get you back into the house. Grace turns and sees her brother red-cheeked upon his sit-bones, sees the knife in her mother's hand as if she were embarrassed of it. Eye to eye they meet and she is surprised by what she does not see in her mother—any sign of madness or evil. Hears when the woman speaks a knot twisting in the cords of her throat. Enough, please, would ye.
Then Sarah moves quick, takes a fist of the girl's hair to lay bare the porcelain of her throat, brings up the knife.
All the things you can see in a moment. She thinks, there is truth after all to Colly's story. She thinks, the last you will see of Mam is her shadow. She thinks, take with you a memory of all this. A sob loosens from the deepest part and sings itself out.
What she meets is the autumn of her long hair. It falls in swoons, falls a glittering of evening colors, her hair spun with failing sunlight. She sobs at the pain in her scalp as her mother yanks and cuts. Sobs as her hair falls in ribbons. Her eyes closed to their inner stars. When she opens them again her mother has circled her. Colly on his knees holding fistfuls of hair. The wind-cold licking bitter at her bare neck. She raises her hands and puts them dumb to what's left of her head, her mother stepping in front of her, the knife going into the dress. Sarah looks frustrated, breathless, wan and exhausted, the skin on her throat beginning to hang loose as if to wear it well requires effort she has not within her. Her collarbone a brooch of banished beauty. She rests her hands on her seven-month swell, bolds up her voice to her daughter. What she says.
You are the strong one now.
The shard of looking glass holds the world in snatches. She snares the cloud-tangled sun and bends it towards her feet. They are long and narrow feet and though unshod are unmistakably hers—as delicate as any girl's, elegantly formed, she thinks, and if you washed the dirt you would see beneath the nails a perfect rose-pink. She is proud of her slender ankles, not swollen like Mam's. The knobbly jut of knee with its moony scar. She turns and reflects the sun towards the back of Colly's head, the boy in a sulk, snorting fumes from his clay pipe. She hears the padding of speedy feet inside and then a child falling, knows from the cry it is the youngest, Bran. Colly muttering a curse, then getting up in a flop when the crying does not cease. She cannot bear to look at her head. Swings the looking glass to see gossamer strung between two rocks—a cobweb that swings a gentle arc on the breeze and the way it pulses light makes it seem alive with the sun. She reaches her finger and severs it, wipes what sticks off the rags of her skirt. If her finger were a blade it would be as sharp and pointed as her hate. She thinks, the things I would do with it.
Movement by the door. She angles the looking glass so she can see her mother step out of the house with her red shawl, a fisherman catching a shoal of daylight as she swings it over her shoulders. Sarah pulls a chair to the middle of the road, sighs, sits red-faced as if awaiting somebody—awaiting Boggs, Grace thinks—Sarah's hands fumbling on her lap. She sighs again, then stands and steps wordless into the house, emerges with the ash pin and fastens it to her shawl, sits down on the chair. No one dares talk when Sarah is like this, though Colly and Grace keep their eyes fixed on her. She knows that Colly sees the makings of a witch in his mother, wants to lay her cold with his fist. She watches the way her mother sits watching the road on top of the hill, pokes her eyes into the holes of Sarah's dirt-white skirt, each hole as wide as two or three fingers. The way the skirt fans down from the waist like the warped pleat of a melodeon. And then, for a moment, she sees her mother as someone different, thinks that by seeing Sarah in the looking glass she can see her truly as she is—a woman who might once have been young and wears a glimmer of it still. The way this fifth pregnancy is graying her. And then like light the awareness passes and she grabs hold of her hate.
Of a sudden, Sarah is standing and bunching her skirt. The way she sets off up the road that rises to the pass, her arms folded, her body leaning into the weight of the hill, into the deadening void of color but for the total of brown where nothing good grows, the land unspoken but for the wind.
She knows the youngers are made every part of them innocent but still they bear the mark of Boggs. That same scald of red hair. A hang of earlobe like a polished coin. That bulldog nose. How he has stained all his children. In the town last year she saw two boys just like them the same age as well, though Sarah kept on walking as if blinkered. She thinks of this as she rebuilds the low fire. Sizzle-spit of moss and then slabs of turf that sit valiant to the embers as if for a moment they were the equal of it. She settles the youngers down with tin cups of water, watches the fire come to judgment. For too long she has watched her mother's descent—down and down into some inner winter vision. Her eyes taking the glaze. Went that way after Boggs's last visit. The man sweaty, calm-as-you-like in his manner. That backward-leaning walk. That sprawling red beard as if it were its own majesty. The way he sits in the room twirling his knuckle hair while pinning you with his stare. Never gone from his heels those greyhounds lunatic about the place. Every time he comes there is what he does. What sounds at night. Sarah's whimpering. During the day even, when Sarah sends them all outside. And then that day when he asked to see Grace alone in the house and how Sarah straightened up to him, told him he had no business with her, but as soon as he was gone how the change came over her mother, her eyes becoming black and unseeing like Nealy Ford's ox, the way that ox stood a philosopher to its own stillness before taking off across the field in a run, as if startled by a vision of its own end. That was before Nealy Ford left the cabin next door unannounced and took himself off, the place empty, the land he'd limed and reclaimed—another one gone, Mam had said.
She steps outside and fixes the latch, sits beside Colly on the hammer rock. He curls his dark toes while a hand burrows to pull loose plug tobacco from his pocket. They sit in his palm like question marks. He is still slit-eyed with anger. He tamps the pipe with his thumb then shouts a loud fuck and slides off the rock. He returns a moment later with the pipe lit, his hand swinging a broken umbrella. She watches the top of the road for her mother, draws her skirt over her feet and puts a hand to her head. What lies unknown is a sickening thing like the slow knotting of rope inside her. Colly sits beside her hanging the pipe from his lip. He is trying to fix the umbrella with string, though the mechanism is broken. She can feel the look that reads her as if she can see herself. The awkwardness with which she sits, knees to chin. The weirded shape of her skull and what it does to her ears. The shame she cannot hide at being undone of herself. Being unmade of her beauty. I look like bad pottery, she thinks. A wretched blue-eyed cup. A kettle with two big bastarding bools for ears.
She turns and catches him looking. What? she says.
Listen, muc, who gives a fuck about that auld bitch.
She puts her hands to her head. Thinks, there is shame now in just being looked at.
She says, my head is sore and frozen with the cold. No one will look at me now.
He takes off his cap, throws it at her. Here, put this on. I don't feel nothin of the cold anyhow. His smile becomes broad when she puts it on. Hee! You look like me now. That's not so bad, is it?
She brings the looking glass shard to her face and sees the soft under each eye is puffed. Examines the crust of blood that has formed over her left ear. She adjusts the cap but her ears are huge under it. She forces a smile. Says, she has made me look like you with your big lug ears.
His face creases in mock anger. Get away, you bald goat.
They sit in easy silence, watch the land become shadow, an enormous cloud passing low overhead like a weightless mountain. They sit dwarfed in this rift between the earth and the sky, trying to see into what lies mute and hidden. In the crosshatch of a tree a blackbird sings and she decides the bird sings for her. From this bird's flight she will determine an augury. She thinks about Sarah's far-cousin, the Banger, a blacksmith on the bottom of the hill. What he said. That these are dangerous times, Grace. That it rained frogs in Glásan and what have you and that's what done it for the lumper potatoes. A sign from the fairy pooka, he said. She knows that after the failed harvest, men from the big houses in the land below began carrying guns to protect their shortages. That Sarah is worked up about it even though she and Colly are good foragers. What a strange year it's been, she thinks, the rain and the storms that upturned summer into winter and the heat of September and then that bilgewater stench that came from the fields. Now, this flood October. The rains like something biblical and everything dead. And this the first dry morning in weeks.
Where do you think Mam's gone to, Colly?
Like I give a toss.
There is a bloom in his cheeks that never whitens. He is always thinking, tinkering with things. His latest are the bird traps, though Sarah scolds him—you'll eat no such thing, not ever. But Grace knows he has eaten one or two, dirty crows probably. She has seen the ashy bones in the fire. She thinks, unlike the youngers, we two are the same blood and now one face is the same as the other.
She turns to read what is foretold by the bird but the bird has gone and left behind mystery. And then it comes to her, the answer so clear she is startled. She whispers it to herself, over and over. Thinks, do not speak it aloud.
Colly says, anyhow, what in the hell was Mam on about? Cutting your hair is hardly going to make you strong. Wasn't it Samson came to weakness because of it?
She thinks, he hasn't yet figured it. That might be as well.
Everybody around here knows I'm the strongest. Look. He rolls up his sleeve, squeezes his fist and pops his scrawny biceps. This is what I mean by power.
Colly, yer twelve.
She watches him toke too deep on his pipe and struggle to contain a cough. She wants to cry for herself, at the pain-cold of her head, at this dumb-tongued feeling that has settled inside her. At this future she knows is being fixed without her consent. She chooses instead to laugh at him.
Just you watch, he says. He sucks and shapes his mouth into a pout, tongues through the mouthcloud of smoke. What emerges are not smoke rings but little gray tuffets. There, he says.
His voice drops to a whisper. I think Mam has got the tunnies.
It's when they get into your body and eat into your brain and put you out of sorts with yourself.
Where did you hear that?
I heard it off some fella.
He falls silent. Then he says, do you think Mam is gone for good?
She thinks, Mam will return, but then, what of it?
He says, I think the tunnies have got her good this time. I think the auld bint's rotten for good.
She stares into his eyes until she sees the fright he is trying to hide. Says, she would never abandon you lot.
He sucks thoughtfully on his pipe. I can look after myself anyhow.
She says, don't you realize? Boggs is coming back. I know it like I know the day is turning. That is why she is frightened. That's why she has gone strange like this. We have nothing for him. The way things have gone now with the harvest all rotten. She doesn't know what to do.
She wets a finger and puts it under her cap, rubs at drying blood.
Colly says, I know what it is. It is the way that Boggs looks at you.
She slides off the rock and bloods it with her finger. C'mon, she says. We need to go gleaning.
Hold on, he says. His hand to his chin like a man in boy bones, always puzzling something out. What's fat as a cake but has nothin to ate, is ten times tall but contains nothin at all?
You told us that riddle last week.
How could I? he says. I just made it up.
She means for me to leave.
She stands in the shade watching for her mother, the creeping sun stirring strange colors in the far-off. The land has become manifold, stretching itself in darkly different forms, shadows that reach and consume and dissolve into the one dark as if everything were just play to this truthdark all along. The wind low like a snuffling animal bending unseen the grass. This wind an accompaniment to all her days here, Blackmountain, a rock-ribbed hill road used by travelers, sales folk, drovers herding livestock to the townlands by the sea, or farmers carting lumpers before they went black and liquid in the earth. Men who took a meal and sometimes stayed the night if they were late passing, left the odd coin but most times bartered. But this last while, the road has risen few travelers and those who pass bring nothing to eat. A knock on the door now is more often the open hand of a beggar.
She sees her mother's relief coming over the pass, steps quickly into the house. Colly on the stool, his body bent over the yellowing book of sums. The youngers tangled together on the straw. The older, Finbar, is making rope of Bran's hair until the younger wails and she swings the child onto her shoulder. She hushes him and the candle beside Colly flickers as if something unseen has entered, though something unseen has already entered, she thinks. It sat itself down and spoke in secret tongue with Mam and it is you now who has to deal with the consequences. Footsteps and then Grace turns to see Sarah standing ill-sainted between the jambs of the door muttering about her feet. What is held in the woman's hand.
Hee! Colly throws the book and leaps from the stool.
Sarah says, don't you even think about looking.
She turns her back, takes the knife, and unsleeves the hare from its skin with a slowness the watchers inhabit. She drops it into the pot and fills the pot with water and hangs it over the fire. Then she takes the jug outside and laves her hands and cools her feet with water. Colly pretending again at the book but he is sly-watching the meat as if it could leap from the pot back into its skin and hare out the door. Grace sits rubbing at her head but Colly takes no notice. It is still strange to her, this bareness of scalp. Having hair now that tufts like tussock grass. Hair like fir needles. Hair like the blackthorn robbed of its sloes. She thinks of what the hare looked like headless and skinned, how it glistened gum-pink. The shine of its inner parts as if the mystery of what brought it life gleamed with revelation. And then the shock of a thought. What did Mam barter for this? She watches the woman carefully. She says, we gathered some charlock while you were gone. Cooked it up with some nettles and water.
Sarah sits and beckons for Bran. She opens her clothing to the hang of her breast and puts the child to it. My feet are broke, she says. Pass me that creepie for my feet.
The child takes the nipple but cannot draw milk.
Tongues thicken to a meat smell that can be tasted. She cannot remember the last time she had meat. She thinks, the spit-taste of lead. That man with the wolf face, telling stories over the fire, left hanging two wood pigeon full of shot. How he told them he was raised by wolves, said he could bark before he could speak. Started yapping at the roof, leaping about with two fiddling elbows. Mam telling him to shush, you'll stir the youngers. The way his eyes shone while telling his stories as if they were not just true but had happened to him. Then he quietened down, hunched like an animal when he told them the story of his birth. Said, my name is Cormac mac Airt and I was found in the woods by a wolf. I was left there by a mammy that didn't want me. The wolves raised me up as their own, so they did. Learned me to lap at the river with me tongue. I did everything the way of the wolf but they weren't impressed later on, when they saw me do a man's business standing up. How everybody had a laugh at this but Colly, the entire time giving the man a funny look. Cormac mac Airt's not yer real name, he said. You're Peter Crossan. And the wolves died off, so they did, in Ireland before you were born.
How she had wished Colly would shut up. Wolfman pawing at Colly with his eyes. You be careful, buachalán. Too much knowledge will make a tree grow from your neck.
It was two days later when Boggs came to visit.
All eyes at the table are upon Sarah as she piles the meat into a bowl. Colly's elbows have expanded, his eyes eating the meat. He shoves at his sister as Sarah carries the bowl to the table. She slides it before Grace. Colly reaches to grab at it but Sarah cuffs his ear with a quick hand. Sit you quiet, she says.
She speaks to her daughter. All this is for you.
Eat you all of it.
Her stomach tightens as if with sickness. Question and confusion alight her eyes as she looks at her mother, looks at Colly, the faces of the youngers. She eyes the meat again and slides the bowl towards the center of the table.
She says, the others are hungry too.
Sarah pushes the bowl back towards her. I got this meat specially for you.
I won't eat it. Here, Colly, you eat it instead.
She does not see the hand that strikes from darkness, her cheek scalded. She closes her eyes and watches the fire burn out. It is Sarah who begins to shout. Yer just like your father. You with your stubborn head. Her voice drops and then wobbles. If only you knew what I went through to get this. Now eat it. Eat every part of it. And what you cannot eat you will take away with you.
Salt tears in her mouth flavoring the food she eats with her fingers, heaven's taste though she cannot enjoy it. She hears only the words her mother has said, wants to ask what she means though in her heart she knows. Colly has gone quiet, his eyes squished with anger. She eats until she can eat no more, pushes the bowl into the center of the table.
I feel sick. I feel sick with it. Let the others eat some.
You will take what is left with you. You need it to make you strong.
Sarah stands away from the table with Bran hanging from her arm. She points to Colly and Finbar. Take a look, Grace. Take a good long look at their faces. The harvest is destroyed, you know that. I've tried all over but nobody is giving alms. I am too far gone with child. You have to be responsible now. You must find work and work like a man, for nobody will give but low work to a girl your age. Come back to us then after a season, when your pocket's full. This meat will get you started.
Her mother's words reach her as if by some foreign tongue. The measure of what is known of her world stretching abruptly and beyond what a mind can foresee, as if hills and valleys could be leveled into some sudden and irrevocable horizon. She will not look her mother in the eye, is trying not to cry but she is. She looks around the table, sees the way the youngers stare at her, sees what is in Colly's eyes, the whites of all their eyes and the who they are behind that white and what lies dangerous to the who of them, this danger she has feared, how it has finally been spoken, how it has been allowed to enter the room and sit grinning among them.
She wakes wet with tears knowing she has grieved her own death. A dream-memory of herself lying broken after some fall, a strange witness to her own passing. She touches her wet cheek, feels relief to have wakened, listens to the others. The way it seems each boy's breath entwines one to the other like rope. The arch of Colly's foot warm to her shin. His mind off on some night adventure. She wonders how far he is traveling in his dream and hopes he is happy. How each mind, she thinks, is held in its own husk, a night-drift more private than anything you can see behind a face by day.
And then it comes. Grief for what has changed. Grief for what is.
The whispering breath of Sarah tells her to change out of her clothes. Soon she is out of bed, stands naked before her mother, covers an arm over the small of her breasts. Sarah grabs Grace's hand and yanks it away from her. Weren't you naked the day you were born? She produces cloth to bind Grace's chest, stops and says, you've no need of it. Hands her a man's shirt that swallows her. It smells like rocks pulled from a river. She holds the breeches in front of her and studies them. The fawn fabric is patched tan at the knees. She thinks, they look like a dog has had them for slumber. From whom did they come? Into the first leg she steps and then the other and she looks down at herself—such a sight, wishbone legs snapped loose into two gunnysacks. The breeches go past her ankles. Sarah rolls the ends up, stands behind her and loops the waist with string. A jacket that stinks of rained-on moss. A frieze coat ravelly about the neck and yawning at the elbow.
I might as well be wearing jute.
Sarah whispers. Here. Put on your boots. And try this cap. Your brother's cap is too small for you. Pull it lower. Plenty of boys go about dressed in a father's old clothing.
Grace stands staring past the door at the world held starless by a flat dark. Leg-skin strange in these breeches and the cold whittling her head. Sarah hands her a candle and the light falls from her mother's face so that it seems she is not herself, stands masked to her own daughter. She fusses over Grace, puts a satchel over her shoulder, rolls up the sleeves of the jacket. Then she looks towards the sleeping children, holds Grace with a long look, and whispers. Get to the town and don't dally on the mountain road. Ask for Dinny Doherty and tell him you are your brother. He has always been kind to us. He likes the boy's humor, so try and sound a bit like Colly. Tomorrow is the Samhain, so stay indoors with him and keep from going out. The streets will be full of trouble.
- PRAISE FOR GRACE
—Affinity Konar, author of Mischling
—Donal Ryan, author of The Spinning Heart
—Will Chancellor, author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall
—Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome and The Evening Road
—Belinda McKeon, author of Tender
—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
- On Sale
- Jul 11, 2017
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown and Company