Where They Lie

Mary O'Donnell's fourth novel is a darkly passionate tribute to the Disappeared

In his poem, ‘A Cortege for Jean Mc Conville’, Damian Smyth says of the ‘Disappeared’ – those men and women abducted by mostly Republican paramilitaries during the Troubles, killed and buried in remote parts of the country – ‘There is no chance now… that anything can be recouped of what occurred.'

Paula Meehan’s poem, ‘At Shelling Beach’, meanwhile, considers how ‘the earth gives back at last / all that circumstance or happenstance would conceal’. It is clear that 21st centurt Irish literature is truly beginning to deal with the subject of the Disappeared.

Monaghan-born author Mary O’Donnell’s new novel, Where They Lie, is one of the most extensive responses yet. The novel approaches its subject slant, and not just because it is fiction.

At the John Hewitt Summer School in Armagh earlier this year, O’Donnell spoke of the sensitivity of writing on a subject that is still unresolved for many families, and her sense of ethical decisions to be made in the writing of the novel, a desire to deliberately distance her characters from any of the actual people involved, out of respect for them and their suffering.

To begin with, this deliberate distancing creates a dissonance for me. The twin brothers at the centre of the drama, Sam and Harry Jebb, are abducted and killed together. They are Protestant and the figure who is mourning them most acutely is not a relative but a Protestant friend, the journalist Gerda Mc Allister, who was with them on the night of their abduction from their rural home, Pine Trees.

Even that name seems almost archly fictional, not realistic, conjuring a bright English house in a 1930s film rather than a rural retreat in Tyrone. As I read on, however, this sense of difference becomes one of the book’s great strengths.

O'Donnell reminds us that there is nothing that is typical in loss, that the pain of each death is unique, has its own resonances and is felt differently by different people.

If giving a freshness to the story by taking away familiar short-hand is one ambition of the book, another is to focus on the desolation of survival and the ways that the fallout from violent death extends out from its dark centre, encompassing and shadowing all the lives connected to it.

The novel opens at a time when Gerda is attempting to come off medication and countenance a return to work with a series of documentaries on the idea of North. She has a conversation with Cox, a man with whom she speaks by phone, on the promise that he holds information about the deaths and possibly the whereabouts of the bodies.

Even though she eventually drives to Monaghan town to meet him later in the novel, there are times when Cox too, like Pine Trees, seems more a figment of Gerda's imagination than a real person. The language used in their exchanges seems heightened, formalised, performative.

Her relationship with him is charged, almost erotic: ‘The voice was soft and enticing. It was the kind of voice she imagined would be at the other end of the phone during a sex call… It was soft and northern, quite polished in its way.’ On one occasion, indeed, she and the reader are unsure whether he has phoned at all or whether, in trying to write about her own past, she has conjured him as a kind of grotesque muse.

‘The boys’, which is how the disappeared brothers, Sam and Harry are referred to, never become flesh and blood to us in the novel – they are lost truly, in the narrative as in life. Rather, Where They Lie is Gerda’s story and that of her sister-in-law, the wonderfully-drawn Alison.

One of the things that is so fresh in the book is the way in which the evangelical experience is presented in it. There are still very few contemporary Irish novelists who approach this territory, with the exceptions perhaps of David Park and Kerry Hardie, but it is handled here with nuance and sensitivity.

Protestantism and its language pervade the novel: the Lord’s Prayer in the Tyndale and Coverdale versions, the Protestant ‘God of the true light, from before the time of the Magi’, the injunction to be ‘clean, clean, clean’.

Alison is married to Gerda’s brother, Gideon, who loves the Bible and the literature of faith but is worried by his wife’s increasing journey into evangelical religion. Gerda’s southern boyfriend, Niall – who travels up from Dublin to teach Irish at the weekends in Belfast – allows an outsider’s eye view on this usually closed world, when he decides to accompany Alison to the little ‘Kingdom Hall’ on the coast.

Its hum of the harmonium, its Bibles and psalters, remind Niall of an idealised 19th century painting from rural England, Samuel Palmer’s 'Coming from Evening Church', but he is forced to recognise the authenticity of what he is seeing in all its muscular and mundane reality.

And Alison, who believes that the lost brothers are with her in the healing rhetoric of the preacher, is also a woman with a Brazilian, who methodically has sex with her husband in the hope of getting pregnant and in doing so sometimes ‘lets her mouth fill up with foulness’ as a relief of her anger at her brothers’ loss.

A powerful passage has Alison, a nurse, on duty through the last hours of an old man’s life. She is able to accord his family all the decency of space and sympathy denied herself and her own family, and marvels at the idea of a ‘beautiful death’, at the fact of its inevitability after a vigil and a family who have a body to deal with – the wonder of this.

Elsewhere she marvels in the same way at a picture of an atrocity in the Middle East where a father finds his son’s skull in a shallow grave and kisses it. ‘Imagine that!’

The novel takes place in the darkness of a Northern autumn and winter and there is a sense of wanting spring and light to return, as if this is a purgative time that has to be lived through. There is a sense too of sins shrived by the ending of the novel, of light shone on dark corners, of notions of guilt and complicity.

Ultimately, Where They Lie is a kind of darkly passionate tribute to the lost and, most particularly, to those who are left behind. It is a compelling, compassionate and astonishing read.

Where They Lie is out now, published by New Islands Books.