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Review: The Black Snow, by Paul Lynch
Little, Brown, 2014. 264 pp. $25

It’s 1945, and the Second World War is in its final, convulsive months, but in county Donegal, Irish country folk have their own violent conflicts to think about. The barn belonging to Barnabas Kane, an up-and-coming farmer, has burned, killing forty-three head of cattle and a handyman, Matthew Peoples. The fires have hardly cooled before the whisperings begin: Barnabas sent Matthew into the barn and was therefore responsible for his death. But no charges have been filed, and no one really knows what happened.

Glengesh Pass, county Donegal, northwest Ireland (Courtesy Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Glengesh Pass, county Donegal, northwest Ireland (Courtesy Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Nevertheless, Baba Peoples, the late man’s crazy widow, believes Barnabas killed her husband, and that the Kanes owe her compensation. She even goes so far as to point out that Eskra, Barnabas’s wife, has brought “foreign ways” to the village; Eskra keeps bees, for example. What else would you expect from a woman born in America? For that matter, villagers hostile to the Kanes–which, by now, is most of them–remind one another that Barnabas came from America too, forgetting that he was born in Donegal, emigrated, and returned with Eskra as his bride. It’s a brilliant stroke on Lynch’s part, showing how quickly superstition and prejudice prevent any reasonable assessment of the tragedy and turn it into an occult act perpetrated by evil, so-called outsiders.

Consequently, Lynch gets remarkably far with a deceptively simple premise, and he’s not done. Not only does Barnabas privately wonder whether he did, in fact, send Matthew to his death, he’s quick to notice who among his neighbors failed to help quell the flames and to suspect that the fire resulted from arson. (A diary kept by his teenaged son, Billy, suggests that Barnabas may be right, though not for the reasons he believes.) True or not, however, his paranoid fantasies mirror what the villagers say about him, and his deep, angry depression makes him both impossible to live with and incapable of repairing the barn–for awhile, anyway. So nobody in The Black Snow gets off lightly, even when they deserve sympathy; the novel explores a complex moral problem, with no easy answers.

I also admire the prose, which, at its best, is poetic.

The plough still in the tapered field, poised with the lean of an animal in the moment before attack, its teeth bared waiting to tear at the neck of the earth, but it sat with a dog’s patience through days of raw cold and then rain and he had not the strength to go back to it.

However, though I like this passage, there are others I find self-consciously ornate. Lynch is much too fond of fragments, and though the one above works, they don’t always. Further, as I read phrases like “the damask of puzzlement on her face,” I’m puzzled too, enough to pull me out of the narrative. Or I read “That rain came with a venomous slant to cut a man wide open,” and I’m stopped again, wondering why Lynch needs venom on top of cutting someone apart.

And that’s the problem with The Black Snow–it’s over the top. Barnabas Kane (Cain?) eventually gets out of bed and rebuilds his barn, putting his faith in a fresh start. However, the setbacks come pretty hard afterward, and though I applaud these instances of “no; and furthermore,” I don’t believe them, especially when it comes to further violence from Billy and, of all people, Eskra. It feels strange to write this, for I’m one to criticize characters granted redemption they haven’t earned. In such cases, I’m tempted to ascribe that to a desire to appease the reader, a goal often (but not always) more common to commercial rather than literary fiction. But with The Black Snow, the most literary novel I could imagine, I find myself criticizing a narrative that refuses to grant redemption to characters who’ve plainly earned it, dealing out further punishment that’s frankly incredible. Go figure.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.