‘Even now; twenty-two years since he took the photograph, he still cannot quite believe the lack of blood’.
From the first line of this unusual novel I was ‘hooked’. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. It is true though. When I received the book I opened it and read the first paragraph. I wanted to drop everything there and then, never mind the TBR pile, and read this book. It really does grab you. The book starts in 2018 with a photograph of a man skewered through the feet by a meat hook and hanging in a cold store. The Butcher is still fully clothed, only his feet are bare and it is his feet that give the truth away. The wounds there are the only clue that he ‘isn’t just sleeping the wrong way up like a bat.’ This photograph will be displayed on a New York gallery wall for the very first time since it was taken twenty-two years ago.
The story goes back to 1996 and to a group of families surrounding The Butchers – eight men who travel to Irish farms slaughtering the cattle of those who still follow the old ways. The tradition is based on Irish folklore and a curse laid on Ireland by a widow who decreed that eight men must have a hand on the animal when it is killed:
‘And since the war had claimed all eight of her men. She decreed, henceforth, no man could slaughter alone; Instead, seven others had to be by his side. To stop the memory of her grief dying too’.
In rural Ireland in 1996 there is a sense of change in the air. There are less farmers who believe in the old ways and the BSE – mad cow disease – outbreak is on the horizon. The Butchers are setting out after the Christmas break at home with their families. Una’s father is getting ready to leave and her mother Gra is struggling with the separation. It’s a lonely life being a wife to a Butcher and this year Una’s father makes a promise; when they are slaughtering nearby around midsummer, he will try to spend a couple of nights at home. Gra’s sister Lena is married to Fionn and the families have lost touch with each other. Fionn is coping with his Lena’s diagnosis of a brain tumour by trying to raise money for experimental treatment. To raise the funds needed he has been pulled into illegal activities. His son Davey has heard a lot about the folklore surrounding The Butchers from his mother, but he has his sights set on life in the big city. Una has always wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps even though the ancient order is closed to girls. Her ambition could be thwarted when one of the eight Butchers is found hanging from a meat hook in the cold store. The remaining seven feel that now is the time for the tradition to die with him. Then twenty-two years later, the photograph appears in an exhibition. Can Una finally solve the case and find a killer?
I thought the author’s characterisation was detailed and believable. I bought into their stories straight away, but I was particularly moved by Fionn. His desperation shows as he’s awake in the depths of night stamping new labels on packs of beef. He has been sharp enough to see a chance to make money on Irish beef while buyers are avoiding British suppliers. He also has demons in his past, like a dependency on alcohol and he even admits assaulting his wife and son on occasions. In some way, his determination to get treatment for his wife, could come from guilt and feeling he could never atone for his mistakes. He treads a fine line between keeping his sobriety and helping his wife, but appearing to be ‘one of the boys’ when dealing with the smugglers taking his meat across the border. Una’s coming of age was also compelling and her sense of being an outsider as a child, because of her family’s beliefs struck a chord with me. I also identified with the way she sees her father as a ‘giant’ of a man, somehow interchangeable with the mountainous landscape. The changes between points of view worked really well and kept the narrative interesting. Each character shows how this moment in history heralded change for different groups in society; for young women like Una, for rural farmers, for Davey who is discovering his sexuality.
Although I wouldn’t class this as historical fiction – possibly because it feels like yesterday to me – I really enjoyed the subtle reminders of the mid 1990s. The author managed to signal time and place without going overboard into outright nostalgia. The story is always the most important thing. I think this accounts for the unusual mix of genres too; it is part crime novel, part coming of age story, and a mix of historical fact and folklore. I like the fact it’s difficult to pigeon-hole, because that’s what makes it unique. I think the author has cleverly matched a time of growth in Ireland’s history with the younger character’s development into adulthood. This is a time that I was moving from my teenage years into adulthood, leaving home and moving into a flat with a boyfriend for the first time. It was post-Brit Pop and wild nights out, morphing into cosy nights on the sofa watching Sex and the City. For Una it’s a time of challenging a strictly patriarchal society and tradition. Davey is forging his identity and coming to terms with his sexuality. For their parents this is a time of reckoning, of mulling over the decisions they made and wondering whether they were the right ones. For Ireland, these are the years that built towards the huge global banking crisis. There was an influx of money into the country and a more capitalist culture emerged, where development and consumption became the norm. Old superstitions had no place and even traditional values were being replaced with new laws on divorce and homosexuality. Yet whatever the changes, there is a steadfastness about the landscape that will always remain. I have never read the author before, so had no preconceptions about what the novel might or should be. I have loved the opportunity to read this unique, atmospheric and bittersweet novel.