Thirty years ago Conor Cruise O’Brien coined the acronym GUBU, standing for grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. He was paraphrasing a comment by the then taoiseach of Ireland, Charles Haughey, describing a strange series of incidents in the summer of 1982 that included a double murder and the arrest of the killer in the house of the Irish attorney general. The episode inspired John Banville’s 1989 novel, The Book of Evidence.
Another GUBU episode from more recent Irish history lies at the heart of Mike McCormack’s bracingly original novel. In March 2007 the mains water supply in Galway (the author’s home town, ‘the wettest city in Ireland’) and the surrounding areas became contaminated with cryptosporidium, a parasite found in human and animal excrement. Many people became very ill. McCormack investigates this ‘bodily and civic catastrophe’, as represented by the sickness of the narrator’s wife, an extended metaphor for the state of the nation.