Thursday, June 5, 2014

Beautifully Written, But Lacking Emotional Depth

Red Sky in Morning
by Paul Lynch
Published by Little, Brown and Company
2 Out of 5 Stars

Red Sky in Morning has rightfully earned comparisons to the terse, brutal writing of authors like Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell. This is a bleak story and a pervasive sense that all will not be well by the end hangs over every melancholy word. This is a book that I should have liked and why it didn't resonate with me is something I've been pondering for a few days.

Set in Ireland during the 1800's, the novel begins with the classic conflict between tenant and landowner--only this conflict ends in an accidental death that costs Coll Coyle not just his farm, but his family and his country. Fleeing from vengeance in the form of a foreman named Faller, Coll is forced to leave Ireland and sail to America, where brutal work and animosity against the Irish awaits. However, Faller is a single-minded hunter willing to pursue his quarry across the ocean and will not rest until Coll has paid for his crime.

Of course, the tale of a man trying to outrun the sins of his past and the weight of regret through a physical journey is not a new one. And I think that's part of the problem here. This is an oft told story and, to my mind, it's been compellingly told by other authors--McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain come to mind. Red Sky in Morning never delves into the relationship between man and God, good and evil, sin and forgiveness with McCarthy's philosophical complexity, nor does it use the landscape as evocatively as Frazier does in revealing Inman's inner turmoil as the sinner hoping for salvation in a world gone to hell.

There is no doubt that Lynch can write beautifully, which is both a strength and weakness of the novel. While in Ireland, the harsh landscape bears silent witness to Coll's failings, refusing him shelter or succor from his sins. This idea of land as witness to the frailties and failings of man seems Hemingway-esque in a The Sun Also Rises sense; there's the feeling that, for all man's follies, only the earth abides. Lynch's depiction of this landscape is poetic, but begins to veer into a tedious purple prose before it mercifully shifts to the sea voyage, which picks up the pace as dialogue and plot begin to take the reins. I had also hoped that Ireland itself would be more present in the novel, but only a third of the book takes place in Ireland and, other than the Irish dialect and colloquialisms, the story could have easily taken place in any other European country in the 1800's.

Ultimately, though, my disappointment with the novel comes down to this: there is no one here to champion. None of the minor characters are likable and, while Coll is undoubtedly a victim in a system that has robbed him not just of his power, but of his humanity, he's also not a sympathetic character. Refusing to take any form of responsibility for his actions, putting those he loves at risk, and leaving his family behind (with only the occasional pang of regret or remorse; he goes chapters without thinking of his wife and children) make it difficult to connect with him. There is also the odd device of providing his wife with a very limited voice periodically throughout the novel. These chapters feel wedged into the narrative and serve only to reveal the source of the conflict that led to Coll's downfall. To read more about her life in the aftermath of Coll's desertion may have provided more of an emotional touchstone for the reader and salvaged something from the novel.   

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