‘The cargo door opens. It opens incrementally. It falls forward, away from us, into foreign day. There are men down there, stevedores in hi-viz and hardhats shouting to one another. I rotate the ignition to halfway, to check for evidence of light. The instrument panel flashes and falls still. There are chains. There is shrieking of iron like gates of hell. Then this fluorescence gradually floods the floor between rows and creeps towards us and feels warm.’
As soon as I read these lines, following Paddy as he and his lorry emerges from the ferry and out into the light, I knew the writing was going to be spectacular and that this was a poet’s novel. Paddy is travelling from England to France, with his stowaway daughter in tow. It’s hard to explain, but this is a book that manages to be both bitter and beautiful. There’s a bleakness to Paddy’s existence, but such a richness in the language used to describe it. It feels bang up to date too, despite the fact no pandemic is mentioned, the author captures a sense of unreality that is all too commonplace these days. The feeling that the world we know and understand has gone, and we are plunged into something other, like Alice down her rabbit hole. We Are Not In The World is an apt title indeed. We follow Paddy on his mundane journey, punctuated by graphic brief encounters and interactions with his daughter Kitty. However, we are also taken into Paddy’s memories of the past and into his relationships, which are largely disastrous. This is an intelligent rendering of psychological damage wrought within families. His marriage is broken, his brother is more successful than he is and there is a complex, almost Oedipal, relationship between him and his mother – also named Kitty. His daughter is wild and rebellious, and in another nod to Paddy’s mother, she wears her gran’s mink coat at all times.
This is not an easy read, but the right readers will love it. Having searched out some of the author’s poetry, it’s clear that the novel touches on some of the same themes. Family and sibling rivalry are represented in Paddy’s relationship with his brother. There’s a jealousy of his apparent successes, but Paddy has still made him the godfather of his daughter. There’s a sense that family is inevitable and no matter how much we wish to escape it we can’t. Separation is explored too – separateness from the land where he grew up, from family and even from his own self. There’s a sense of wanting to be home, but not being able to and the feeling of homesickness that pervades Paddy’s daily existence. He describes it as like a ‘low level virus’ that he permanently lives with. To me it felt like a low-level depression, one that would drop under the radar of most GP’s charts, but is debilitating nonetheless. There’s a numbness in Paddy. He’s on auto-pilot in his daily life, only living in his head until an interaction jolts him out of his memories. The separateness he describes is something I’ve felt when depressed or going through grief. I was physically in the world, but felt no connection to my surroundings or other people. It was like looking at the world through glass.
The only thing Paddy seems to look forward to is some sort of homecoming. He looks at the family home of Tír na nÓg as both a rose-tinted past and a future redemption. Situated on a shingle beach in Ireland, it feels like his chance of happiness or at least a respite from the homesickness that plagues him. Can it be a place of things coming full circle? A completion of this endless mental push and pull between past and future. It feels like a pipe dream, far removed from the reality he’s in and the way he thinks about certain family events, referred to by him and Kitty as ‘the thing we never mention.’ There are times when I wondered if Kitty was real, or whether her birth from the hiding place of his bunk behind the cab was purely metaphorical. I had moments of confusion, moments of being unsure how these fragmented memories and feelings fit together. I was even unsure of what was real and what was imagined occasionally. However, I loved the feelings it induced in me and the sheer beauty of the prose. There’s a haunting quality to the novel that will stay with me. It was a reading experience that I let wash over me, rather like listening to an opera or viewing a beautiful painting. This is for those readers who like their novels to be strange, and bleak, but beautiful at the same time.
Published by Doubleday 18th February 2022
Meet The Author
Conor O’Callaghan is originally from Dundalk, and now divides his time between Dublin and the North of England. His critically acclaimed first novel Nothing on Earth was published by Doubleday Ireland in 2016.