I chose this novel purely because the author is hilarious on Twitter and I was, dear reader, sore in need of amusement just then. But we’re each of us a cast of disparate selves and the Paraic O’Donnell who pens the novel is a different scribe from the card who taps out the tweets @paraicodonnell. (Although they’re equally erudite.) I admit that I read the first few chapters with some resentment, waiting impatiently for the man who calls himself “an incorrigible trollop,” praises other authors for producing “a weapons-grade banger” and, watching the Met gala ‘camp’ red carpet, swears: “Jesus Christ, Sontag must be turning in her slave-built disco mausoleum”. (Whatever that means. Tweets selected this morning at random.)
Reasons to keep Twitter on the mobile even when the news is Too Much: Paraic O’Donnell. mutablejoe. everjoicewin. Yelling for southeastern to please hold the 11:32 to St Pancras so you can make the connection.
Anyway, I got over myself and read the book as is rather than the wit as sought, and it turns out that I can in fact love an elaborate gothic mystery. This one spins allegories of creativity and power. Sports cars and pistols feature, but so do dank Dickensian quays. A gentle gangster is rescued from the maze only to be disembowelled, an Oxbridge don leads a secret society and a glamorous soprano saunters through the library of all wisdom.
I had reservations – discerning the wood from the trees, unnecessary withholding, too many lost girls – but it turns out that someone else (Tim Clare) had already expressed these in a pithy and astute review in The Guardian.
The language though. O’Donnell’s prose is glorious and at the same time highly cinematic, a screenplay in waiting. In a scene on the riverfront – despair, fog, stench, depravity – our protagonist drags himself through an abandoned building:
“He lit a match, when he had collected himself, and cradled it as he looked about the room. The walls were streaked with filth. At their margins, mould bloomed in dark profusion. … Derelict – that was the word. He was derelict or would be soon. He would stand night and day in the unseen weather, sheltering nothing living. … He went last to the room whose light had first drawn him in. … the wallpaper survived in mottled swatches … Behind him, the bulb flared and dimmed.”
Paraic O’Donnell has a new title out this month – The House on Vesper Sands – and I’ll be devouring that, first chance I get. And meanwhile, you know, snorting as I scroll through his feed.