Caoilinn Hughes’s prizewinning debut, Orchid and the Wasp (2018), marked her out as one of a new wave of young Irish novelists who have come to prominence in the recent decade, led by Kevin Barry in 2011 with his City of Bohane. Sally Rooney appears to have the greatest reach among these authors, with her poised tales of troubled Celtic millennials; Hughes might be altogether too clever and cunning to challenge Rooney’s mildly intellectual take on normcore. This follow-up, about a pair of warring brothers, comes in at just under two hundred pages, but its glittering, elliptical sentences take some effort to unpick.
‘When is a confession an absolution and when is it a sentencing, I’d like to find out,’ remarks her narrator, Doharty Black. Early on Hughes outlines the main events – there will be a journey, a death and a court case – but plot isn’t the point here. Hart, as Doharty is known, is forever quarrelling with elder brother Cormac. They live on a farm in Roscommon with their revered patriarch, Manus, always called ‘The Chief’. In the background is their mysteriously despised mother, Nóra.
The prose style is inventive, sometimes to the point of obscurity. Many of Hughes’s sentences don’t so much stack up as fizz off in all directions like fireworks. This unsettling effect can even happen within the compass of a single sentence.