Book Review: Nothing On Earth (Conor O’Callaghan, 2016)

“Everything was caked in orange dust off the building site: the windows, the furniture, the bottles and tins, their packaging, even the dirty dishes in the sink, the loungers out the back, the envelopes in the hall… I could taste the dust coating the inside of my mouth, like paprika left out for years and gone stale, flavourless.”

This beautiful, hallucinatory, eerie, thought-provoking, indefinable little novel was a real discovery for me this year. I have rarely come across such redolent and mesmeric descriptive writing. First-time author Conor O’Callaghan clearly has talent coming out of his ears.

It’s quite difficult to describe Nothing On Earth in plot terms. It begins with a half-wild girl knocking frantically on the unnamed narrator’s front door, telling him that her father has disappeared. He lets her in and calls the police, with ominous asides to us about how these innocent actions would later be wrongly construed. With a series of flashbacks the narrator then goes on to describe the girl’s family’s increasingly bizarre existence on a nearby half-built housing estate, and how they came to fascinate the rest of the community.

O’Callaghan’s portrait of this housing estate is, for me, key to why the book was so memorable. The novel is set during an unusually sweltering summer, and the ramshackle post-Celtic-Tiger estate becomes an arid, dust-laden, debris-strewn wasteland where inexplicable visions and disappearances, like mirages, become commonplace. The weirdness is cranked up by the lurking presence of a bunch of local eccentrics and grotesques, who sometimes seem helpful, sometimes baffling, sometimes straight-up creepy. The way that O’Callaghan crafted this surreal, dreamlike place intoxicated me and kept me feverishly turning the pages, though this isn’t a ‘page-turner’ in the usual sense.

This is one of those narratives in which no definite answers are given. It’s a novel of allusions, hints, and suspicions, and has an elusive, ambiguous quality that I loved but which will frustrate those who want to know what on earth is going on. Is the narrator reliable, is there a supernatural element, what’s real and what isn’t – these are questions that you are left to decide for yourself.

It reminded me of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, and even a little of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, in its depiction of a family who isolate themselves within a community and begin to unravel as their reality distorts. It has a similar sense of coming somewhat unstuck in space and time – it’s not altogether clear exactly where and when Nothing On Earth is set, other than being somewhere in Ireland, and recent enough for people to have computers. It adds to the feeling of intangibility, of being trapped in a dream that’s segueing into a nightmare.

You can probably tell that I was really impressed by Nothing On Earth. To create such a potent mixture of the lyrical, the sinister and the strange in less than 200 pages is quite a feat. Conor O’Callaghan deserves a bright literary future – bring on the next novel please.

Edition:

Transworld | 2016 | 176p | Paperback | Buy here

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