Review: Ghosts and Lightening

Review of Trevor Bryne’s debut from The Sunday Business Post:

Ghosts and Lightning, the debut novel by Dublin-born writer Trevor Byrne, is set in a Clondalkin housing estate, to which Denny Cullen – an out of work 20-something with a passion for wrestling and Liverpool FC – reluctantly returns following the unexpected death of his mother.

The protagonist is more profligate than prodigal son; he left for Wales with dreams of university and a new life but, less than a year later, is broke, unhappy and back living in the family home, though without his mother’s stabilising influence.

The story follows Denny and his friends as they divide their time between drinking, taking drugs and signing on. Funny and entertaining, yet tinged with sadness and desperation, Ghosts and Lightning is full of colourful scenes. Convinced the house is haunt ed by her late mother’s ghost, his sister Paula harangues a sceptical Denny into organising a seance with the help of Pajo, a former heroin addict with a penchant for herbal medicine, eastern mysticism and the paranormal.

What Pajo believes to be a voice from the spirit world – ‘‘Did yeh hear that?” – turns out to be the low hum of Simon Cowell passing judgment on an X-Factor contestant from an upstairs television.

Surprisingly thoughtful and considerate, Denny is often held back by his comrades and a life that brings little happiness, but from which he seems incapable of escaping. When he buys a decrepit old car for ‘‘the bit o’ freedom’’, it is destroyed by local Travellers in revenge for the transgressions of Maggit, an absent father, petty crook and childhood friend.

Ghosts and Lightning also transposes a favourite trope of 1990s male literary fiction – drug-taking – to contemporary Dublin. From the pills he pops himself to the bag of stolen cocaine that provides the impetus for the rather unexpected denouement in Donegal, drugs are a quotidian feature of Denny’s world.

Given such subject matter and the novel’s vernacular style, comparisons with Irvine Welsh seem inevitable, but this is no Irish Trainspotting.

Byrne’s fragile, dysfunctional characters are more likely to elicit sympathy than repugnance, and his attentive, lyrical prose owes a greater debt to Alan Warner, James Kelman and Cormac McCarthy than to Welsh.

Ghosts-and-Lightning-by-T-002Written and set just before the recent economic crash, Ghosts and Lightning is a remarkably prescient reflection on the lives left behind during the boom.

‘‘I’m not unaware of Ireland’s wealth, I’m just not party to it,” Denny remarks early in the book after an attractive Swedish ‘chugger’, a charity collector, approaches him outside Trinity College.

The question of how to counter such alienation and disenfranchisement is a central dilemma that, in truth, is never fully resolved. The novel is suffused with an underlying nostalgia for a return to ‘‘an older Ireland’’, a phrase Denny uses throughout, but this is not developed much beyond the city-dweller’s nascent yearning for the countryside of his childhood memory.

Nevertheless, there is much to applaud in Byrne’s powerful debut. His writing is concise and unfussy, yet not without literary flourishes: on numerous occasions he appears to abandon the narrative completely only to return a few pages later via an insightful or comic digression; and his use of flashbacks to reveal the character of Denny’s mother is particularly effective.

There are echoes of Roddy Doyle and Sean O’Casey in his use of language, and it makes a refreshing change to discover a new Irish writer using Hiberno-English outside quotation marks.

Judging by this poignant, compelling and often deeply comic tale of life on the margins of Irish society, Byrne seems certain to enjoy greater longevity than the Celtic tiger which abandoned Denny Cullen and his friends so comprehensively.