Since the rapacious early years of this century, certain strains of the Irish landscape – namely, those weird, amorphous zones between town and country, between national road and rubbish-strewn field – have been haunted by the spectacle of what our government departments still call “Unfinished Housing Developments” and what everyone else calls ghost estates. These remote exurbs and fake villages, often bearing tellingly ominous names like Maudlin Vale or Red Rock, were built during the property bubble under the spurious belief, among other spurious beliefs, that there was a national housing shortage. They speak, in their way, of that generation’s tragic flaws: complacency, corruption, and most of all, confusion.
As of 2017, over six hundred of these eerie, fenced-off compounds are still standing, in various stages of completion and decay. Some are occupied, most aren’t. The ones that aren’t, the dead concrete shells that rise up from softened soil and mounds of gravel (once billed as “luxury townhouses” or “holiday villas” or “elegant starter homes”) have come to dominate a large, melancholic space in Ireland’s collective imagination, as ruins often do. But these are very peculiar ruins; the lost world they point to is not the past but the future, not what-was but what-could-have-been. As Conor O’Callaghan notes, in a companion piece to his dazzling novel Nothing on Earth, “The houses feel haunted by lives that someone hoped for, but which never came to pass.”
Nothing on Earth, O’Callaghan’s first novel, is set on a nameless ghost estate in rural Ireland. Narrated by an elderly priest, whose involvement in the central events is left troublingly unclear, the story follows a young family of four who have just moved in to a brand-new show home on an otherwise abandoned site. They are an unusual, modern sort of family. There is Paul, the man of the house, and Helen, his partner, and their daughter, “a girl of twelve or thereabouts”, who is also called Helen. Adding to the domestic confusion is the presence of Martina, Helen’s sister, who lives with them, and always has, for reasons unknown.
Over the course of a very warm summer, strange things begin to happen. The show house’s doors slam by themselves. The taps come on at night. Dimly lit faces are spotted at the end of the garden. Then, one particularly hot afternoon, Helen, the mother, disappears. And then Martina disappears. And then Paul. They simply vanish, one by one, without even the pretence of an explanation.
This is a beautifully disturbing little horror show, and the disappearances at its core are handled with real grace. O’Callaghan’s prose remains hard-edged, pared-down and calm, even as the inferno descends over his characters. We share Paul and his daughter’s shock and panic and disgust as their family ceases to exist around them, and – as it becomes increasingly clear that they’ve drifted into an abnormal world, a world without obvious cause-and-effect – we share their resignation, too. At some point, they stop looking for the missing women, and resolve simply to cling to one another.
Paul didn’t report Martina’s absence to the authorities, nor did he decide not to. He just never got around to making a phone call. When his daughter asked him if he was going to, he said he was afraid of how it would make them look to the outside world. He said he was afraid she would be taken from him.
Of course, it was always an abnormal world. There is the setting, for one. Throughout, the author takes a kind of Ballardian pleasure in cataloguing and elucidating the sinister backdrop against which these unexplainable events take place. The estate, or “close”, is a limbo of filth and debris, where “pools of hardened cement and chalk” gleam in the moonlight, and the characters, before they dematerialize, negotiate their way through its unresolved landscape, its “random scattered scraps of timber and scaffold”, and “offcuts of yellow rubber piping,” and “cement lumps in the shape of oil drums.”
As the atmosphere of dread thickens, the ghost estate is purged of its socio-economic context, and mutates into a kind of psychic realm. The society around it begins to rot away into insignificance. In fact, alongside its shades of horror and domestic realism, Nothing on Earth carries a powerful dystopian charge. This is not the whimsical, stagey Celtic dystopia of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, but a committedly surreal and judderingly alive portrait of a broken community, in which the mental states of its citizenry bleed into and blend with the environment that made them.
As well as the fine attention he pays to landscape, O’Callaghan has caught some of the best and most original dialogue in contemporary fiction. The terrified family at the novel’s heart have just returned from “foreign parts”, and must relearn a host of Irish expressions. One of the more frustrating aspects of the recent Irish novel is the unnecessary emphasis it tends to place on speech; or rather, on accent. (It might be driven by a personal eccentricity, but I never again want to read a novel by a so-called “new Irish voice” whose first line of dialogue contains some ugly flash of faux-demotic, i.e. one that reads anything like, “ah heyar Da, wud yi tell Ma ta fuk aff, wudja?” (although I suspect it has a little to do with selling books to the English, who have come to expect a bit of local colour whenever they bother to pick up whatever hot new Irish novel The Guardian has recommended)).
In Nothing on Earth, though, Irish speech has been distorted into something truly strange; familiar words and phrases are bent into malign shapes. All through the story, the ubiquitous expressions “You’re great” and “You’re as good” are repeated with a foreigner’s insecurity, becoming a kind of spooky refrain. Indeed, since reading this novel, I haven’t been able to hear “You’re as good” the same way. Early on, the two Helens, mother and daughter, walk past a country estate owned by a local landowner named Slattery. The exchange between them is typical:
The girl asked, ‘Will we call?’
‘Like this?’ The girl was wearing a baseball cap that kept falling around her eyes. Helen could feel her tank top clinging to the sweat on her spine. Their flip-flops, feet, were filmed in gravel dust. ‘I don’t think we look quite the ticket.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means we’re not dressed enough.’
Later, after her mother has vanished, and after her aunt has vanished, little Helen will indeed get to visit Slattery’s mansion, this time with her father. The resulting scene, which features a WW1-era gas mask and several bowls of ghoulash (possibly containing the dog food from which “Herr Slattery” has made his fortune), will surely go down as one of the great hellish dinner parties in literature. (Or cinema: think of those jittery, bleeding chickens in Eraserhead, and you’ll be on O’Callaghan’s wavelength). It is a tour-de-force in the art of unease, and, as the cliché goes, worth the price of the book alone.
After Paul’s disappearance, the story begins to take a slightly more conventional turn. Little Helen, frightened and alone, escapes the ghost estate and runs to the nearest town. She bangs on the first door she finds, which turns out to belong to our priest-narrator. (This scene forms the novel’s brief prelude, and is not returned to until the end). From here, the heaped-up dread dissolves. It is as if the lights have come on, the drapes pulled open, the hideous party concluded. Gone is the paranoia, the confusion, the terror: this last chapter is filled with sensitivity, intelligence, moments of real beauty and pathos, and it does not attempt to resolve the ambiguity that made earlier chapters so electrifying. It is, however, more stable, more self-consciously literary than what has preceded it. The hard, surreal style that has marked the novel until this point, with its echoes of Lynch and Ballard and Kafka and cosmic horror, concedes to a more streamlined, elegiac mode, as the priest reflects on a life of chastity and seclusion. The effect is, in a weird sort of way, as disquieting as anything else O’Callaghan has attempted here; imagine if Ballard had replaced the last chapter of High-Rise with that of some tame Booker-winner like The Sea.
Even still, Nothing on Earth is extraordinary, the darkest, most demented, and maybe the best Irish novel I’ve read in years. There are a hundred pages or so of appalling, ravishing, tender, broken prose, and, unsurprisingly, these are the ones that fix their gaze on the “Unfinished Housing Development” and its furtive residents. It’s a minor shame, then, that the author is willing to leave behind terrain he has so powerfully made his own in search of safer, pre-trodden paths.