'I had to write this book'

Prize-winning author Paul Lynch will discuss his new novel Grace — an epic tale about a young girl in famine-era Ireland — in a public conversation with Alan McMonagle at The Black Gate Cultural Centre next Thursday, September 7.

Grace debuted in the US last month to widespread praise, with The Washington Post hailing it as ‘a moving work of lyrical and at times hallucinatory beauty… that reads like a hybrid of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.’

Grace tells the story of Grace Coyle, a 14-year-old girl sent out onto the road by her mother, who cuts her hair off, puts her in men’s clothes and tells her, ‘you are the strong one now’. When her younger brother Colly follows after her, the two set off on a remarkable journey during Ireland’s darkest hour. 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.

Ahead of his Galway visit Lynch spoke with me from his Dublin home and I began by asking if he found the Great Famine a daunting subject to approach; it is telling that despite its cataclysmic effect on Irish history it has seldom been addressed in Irish fiction. “It is an interesting question and you are right; if you think of the Holocaust there is an enormous amount of literature on that subject,” he observes. “With the famine there is a lot of information in the historical record, bureaucratic and economic information, but in terms of direct testimony from ordinary people who went through it, there is very little. I did find it a daunting thing to take on; I did not want to do it initially but I do not choose my books, they come to me and I felt I had to write this book. I started to examine the reason why I did not want to write it and I found within myself there were these feelings deep down of shame and guilt that have been there all my life about attitudes toward the famine, about how we were and how we were portrayed and I felt I needed to address that.”

“I wanted to get inside this world and then the character of Grace came along and I followed her,” Lynch continues. “She is not a typical victim; she is a survivor. She is plucky, intelligent, crafty –she will do whatever it takes to get through this enormous, cataclysmic, event and that is the kind of person that I was interested in following. For me it was almost an exorcism to try and get inside this world and figure out what was it I did not like about it as an Irish person. I think that there is an aspect of deep trauma to do with the famine that has never really been articulated. One of the reasons I suspect survivors never talked about it is because of this trauma. Primo Levi said ‘survivors are rarely heroes’ and there was a lot of violence around that time and people had to resort to morally compromising behaviour to survive.”

Lynch’s previous novel, The Black Snow, won France’s bookseller prize, Prix Librà Nous for Best Foreign Novel, while his debut, Red Sky in Morning, was a finalist for the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, France’s Best Foreign Book Prize.

Did he do a lot of historical research before writing Grace? “You cannot write a book like this without doing a lot of research but then you have to forget it all,” he answers. “Grace lives her life moment by moment; she is not thinking about the famine, if she even knows what it is, in the way that we think about it. You try to create a faithful context for the story to happen in. You have to forget all about the statistics and politics and what historians have written. I am a novelist and am by nature suspicious of people saying how things were because nobody really knows the complexity of how something was. One of my jobs as a writer is to poke at received wisdoms and to test the idea of truth and bring things down to a level of human truth.”

Lynch describes the relationship between Grace and her brother Colly; “When Colly came along I instantly fell in love with him because he was one of these hilarious constantly chirpy characters. He was perfect as a foil to Grace but then, without giving any spoilers, something happens and he leaves the book and yet he returns –he had to return. When I was writing it it took me by surprise how he returned, but I think it was that he was just so irrepressible he had to come back to the story. As the novel unfolds Colly becomes increasingly important to Grace as a means of survival.”

Lynch’s Galway visit, hosted by Alan McMonagle, is at 8pm next Thursday, September 7, at The Black Gate, St Francis Street. Lynch concludes; “We will talk about Grace but we will also talk about Alan’s work, about books and literature and the world of writing; I think it will be an interesting conversation.”

It should make for an absorbing evening and, best of all, admission is free. Grace is published in Ireland next week by Oneworld Publications.

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