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Two for the road: We Are Not in the World, by Conor O’Callaghan, reviewed

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

We Are Not in the World Conor O’Callaghan

Doubleday, pp.264, 14.99

A father and his estranged 20-year-old daughter set off across France, sharing the driver’s cabin of a long-haul truck. This is a road trip like no other: Paddy, deracinated, footloose, divorced, taking on a temporary job for reasons that become clear later; and daughter Kitty, spiky, provocative, shaved head, grubby jeans and sweater, wrapped in an old mink coat she’s pinched from her grandmother. Occasionally she rewards her father with an ambiguous affectionate response as their edgy banter veers in and out of dangerous territory: the minefield of parenthood.

The narrative is fractured; nothing told chronologically, the surface deliberately throw-away — skewed punctuation, sentences left hanging. Conor O’Callaghan is a prize-winning poet, whose second novel, We Are Not in the World, could be read like a poem, making sense cumulatively, the full picture only gradually emerging.

We follow the here and now of tachograph checks, fast food and crampedovernighters in sleeping bags; darker moments — desperate refugees at the docks; the queasy horror when Paddy stumbles on a haulier roadside gang-bang. Interwoven with all this we get fleeting moments from a fugitive past, as though revealed in the headlamps of vehicles flashing by: a dysfunctional family; a mother-son relationship verging on the oedipal; brothers whose childhood closeness has been soured by misunderstandings… Here, a wrong turning taken, there, an opportunity missed; a long-running, passionate love affair holding two lives in suspension for a decade. ‘Happiness,’ Paddy observes, ‘comes and goes. It tends not to hang around. Unhappiness has a habit of outstaying its welcome.’

The novel wrenchingly conveys the pain of loss and the power of memory both to heal and to destroy, circling back repeatedly to one particular night: Kitty rushed to hospital, Paddy’s frantic journey to reach her, his guilt about what they now refer to as her ‘Thing’.

All this makes it sound like a miserabilist litany, but the journey is lit up with moments of unexpected beauty and humour. When his lover’s three-year-old boy glimpses Paddy clad only in underpants and great coat, the child thinks he’s encountered a giant from a fairy tale — neither of them aware that they are in fact father and son.

Paddy is haunted by regrets, moral failures and the question of what’s true and what’s imagined. Then, at about the halfway mark, the author delivers a body blow, a shift of gear so wrenching it alters the perspective of all that has gone before and what follows.

Gradually the tangled threads form a pattern, the final loose strand woven in only at the very end — heartbreaking, sweetly logical and tentatively hopeful.

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