The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone reads like the Irish pendant to One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Believe me, I tried really, really hard to resist the temptation to write the above sentence, but in the end, there is no way around it: it’s what best sums up Liam Howley’s debut novel. It takes place for the most part in a provincial village that represents the country if not the world and humanity at large in a nutshell, follows several generations of the same family and some inhabitants of the village, is basically realistic but with the occasional excursion into the territory of the fantastic and is told in an image-rich language that is not afraid of the occasional tinge of purple.
Which, if you think about it, is not really that much of a surprise – with their legendary penchant for tall tales and larger-than-life stories, the Irish practically invented magical realism (and I think there could be made a case that the “Cyclops” chapter from Joyce’s Ulysses is the first piece of magical realism in modern literature) and if there is anything to wonder about than it is that there are not more magical realists among contemporary writers.
In any case, The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone, even while wearing its influences on its sleeve, does not simply imitate Garcia Marquez’ novel – it might be obvious which direction Liam Howley is coming from, but the way he is taking from there is distinctly his own. His novel is markedly more focused than One Hundred Years of Solitude, both in content and in form.
Content-wise, The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone mostly follows the vicissitudes of a single family over four generations, only occasionally straying from that genealogy, and it even has something like a main character, Cornelius Conlon, who is already old when the novel starts, given to preaching on street corners and long solitary walk in the countryside and obsessed by chronicling the weather down to its minutest changes. Poulnabrone, the village he lives in, lies next to a river, constantly threatening floods, and sits on top of a vast system of tunnels, dug over decades for weapon smuggling and other clandestine activities. The tunnels and the river are slowly eroding Poulnabrone to the point where buildings are beginning to slide and its inhabitants live in slanted houses (from which Howley strikes some very funny sparks), something they seem strangely indifferent to, even as more and more cracks appear in the walls of their homes. The author is not subtle about Poulnabrone being an image for contemporary Ireland but this works well for the novel, and allows him to insert some trenchant satire, in particular towards the end when Poulnabrone briefly becomes a tourist attraction and the village’s inhabitants conserve the cracks and decay of their houses in order to draw in more visitors. In fact, this is possibly another distinction between One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone – the latter is considerably funnier than the former.
Which is not to say that Liam Howley’s novel was chiefly a comedy, or that its imagery was confined to making Poulnabrone mirror Ireland. This, in fact, brings us to the second area where The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone turns out to be more focused than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel – while that is sprawling both in its story and its symbolism, Howley keeps his imagery much tighter; clustering it around three motifs: the underground tunnels / earth (which are tight, constricted and determined), the river / water (which is flowing, ever-changing and chaotic) and the weather / air (which appears chaotic but works according to complex rules, whose order is so complex that it is almost indistinguishable from accident). The episodic plot of the novel is held together by those thematic clusters which branch out and interconnect in a variety of ways, and Cornelius Conlon, his daughter Lily, her daughter Tara, and her unnamed child move among images as much as they do among real landscapes. This is accomplished by prose that is as dense as it is beautiful and by a deliberate (if occasionally somewhat awkward – but then, this is a debut novel) structure which slowly fragments as the village Poulnabrone increasingly deteriorates. The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone is very, very impressive for a first novel and judging by it, there is hope for great things to come from Liam Howley.