'To be natural is to be obvious," wrote Oscar Wilde, "and to be obvious is to be inartistic." Billy O'Callaghan's debut novel The Dead House lays its foundations firmly in the natural world. Set predominantly in the scenic coastal village of Allihies, Co Cork, the book is vivid in its descriptions of landscape. O'Callaghan's affinity with nature is the standout attribute in a novel lacking in tension and finesse.
A heavy-handed prologue announces the book’s intentions: “Tonight, I have a story to tell, one that for years I’ve kept buried, one that I’d hoped could have remained so forever . . . Because time, as we all know, can blur things. But maybe it can also, in its way, bring clarity. I only hope that, with so much at stake, I have not waited too long to speak of this”.
Despite the narrator Mike's efforts to ramp up the chill factor, The Dead House rarely engages. Told in a naturalistic style that reads at times like clunky memoir – think Michael Harding without the charming detail – the story concerns a female painter, Maggie, who relocates to Ireland after an abusive relationship. Mike is her art dealer and friend, who loans her thousands of pounds to buy a rundown, rat-infested cottage in Cork.
Scenes that show Mike caring for Maggie in London after a violent episode are well drawn, but the relationship is underexplored. Instead we’re given a ghost story of sorts as Mike and two others – gallery owner Alison and poet Liz – visit Maggie for a weekend in Allihies that starts out with a few drinks and ends up with Maggie possessed by a Famine-era ghost. “The Master” comes to life in a cliched scene involving a Ouija board and manages to imbue Maggie with a lengthy monologue of the past horrors of the cottage.
The horrors themselves are compelling enough, perhaps the most compelling part of the book. Children die in fires, a young girl is brutally raped and murdered, the community at large perish from starvation. But as The Master tells his tale, readers must suspend disbelief in a novel that is supremely naturalistic in other respects.
There are similar issues with narration in earlier sections when Mike relates Maggie’s history and her move to Cork. How can he, from London, know the details of her life in Ireland, what she sees when she looks out her window – and, more gratingly, the inner workings of her mind? A weak attempt to ascribe the knowledge to phone conversations does little to mitigate the implausibility.
These jarring switches are compounded by a tendency to lead the reader. In the cottage in Allihies, Mike’s soon-to-be girlfriend Alison “looked relaxed, laughed readily and was clearly glad to be here”. Mike himself is “comfortable without actually challenging the threshold of serious wealth. Fine art has, for me, been a relatively lucrative business”.
Addendum commentary is common, with little thought for economy of language: “Alison wants Hannah to know her roots, and to feel at home. Which is only right.” A plain-clothes police officer is “a woman in clothes so plain she might as well have carried a sign around her neck”. And “the odds on achieving a conviction were thin to the point of anorexic”.
Dialogue is unnecessarily clarified: “addressing neither one of us in particular”. Even a Chinese takeaway gets explained as “recklessly unhealthy but far more convenient” than cooking. Cliches appear frequently – sooner rather than later, people consumed with work, worlds that stop turning, optimism stoked. “Life gets in the way,” Mike tells the reader, “it happens to the best of us”.
Some lovely details do shine through at times, which harks to O’Callaghan’s pedigree as a short-story writer. Maggie’s eyes are “the deep pond green of carnival grass”. When Mike travels back to the cottage to check up on Maggie, “her hair carried a putrid stench, the sharp vinegar reek of sweat and decay”. His insights as an art dealer are interesting, as are some of the reflections peppered throughout the narrative, though they have an authorial feel: “In a city, with its crowds and traffic noise, reality is a sheet of thick glass, solid and impenetrable. But out here, it is a far less certain state”.
Nature is admirably showcased throughout: “The ground flowed in tumultuous order a cascade of the wildest washed-out greens torn and split by jutting flashes of slate and limestone.”
From Cork, O'Callaghan is author of three short-story collections including The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind (2013), the title story of which earned him the 2013 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award for Short Story of the Year. He was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award for The Boatman last January. Hailed as a master of understatement for his short fiction, this quality is lacking in his debut novel. The Dead House is a triumph of the obvious over the artistic.