Reviewed: This Is the Way by Gavin Corbett

Fish out of water.

This Is the Way
Gavin Corbett
Fourth Estate, 250pp, £14.99

Two houses, both alike in enmity: the Sonaghans and the Gillaroos, Irish traveller families, have been feuding for time out of mind. Sonaghan and Gillaroo are also the names of two trout species peculiar to Lough Melvin in north-western Ireland. Our narrator, Anthony Sonaghan, is the son of a rare union between the clans. His Gillaroo mother tells him the myth of the feud’s origins, in which the lake dries up and the fish (thanks to divine intervention from the Blessed Mother) become men, fighting for space at the bottom of the lake. The tale is part of Anthony’s cultural heritage but his Sonaghan father is angry with his wife for keeping the old legends alive:

He says I knew by the sound of your  voice you were telling them stories. I could hear it through the wall. I don’t want no stories in this house no more. They want stories they can read books he says.

Although Anthony’s father tries to break the cycle of feuding, the book opens with Anthony on the run from the Gillaroos, afraid for his life. For over a year, he hides out in a rented room in an old Dublin town house. After six months, he meets Judith Neill, who works in the university library transcribing folk tales and oral history. “I seen a notice said this lady wanted people to tell their stories. She was collecting them from people like me.” When Judith discovers that Anthony is literate, she encourages him to write for himself.

Anthony’s voice is a star feature of the This Is the Way, which is the Irish writer Gavin Corbett’s second novel. At first glance, he appears to be speaking to us, in the seductive colloquial patter employed by so many descendants of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnand The Catcher in the Rye. Yet the prose doesn’t flow like speech should: there are few elisions and little punctuation, lending it a strained, staccato quality in spite of its lyricism. It doesn’t sound like speech; it sounds like writing – from someone who isn’t a writer. That extra layer of vocal complexity aligns the novel more closely with Russell Hoban’s virtuosic Riddley Walker.

Corbett’s hero, like Hoban’s, is telling his story from the edge of literacy, with none of Holden Caulfield’s rolling vernacular ease. This makes for slower reading but the rewards are worth it. Anthony’s stilted eloquence gives us unique views in two directions: on to the murky world of traveller lore and on to modern-day Dublin from a near-outsider’s perspective.

Anthony is perched between these two worlds. When his horribly mutilated uncle Arthur seeks refuge with him, he is irritated by the older man and impatient of his disdain for modern medicine. Yet he is still impressed by the traveller mystique surrounding Arthur, who is said to have started a war in Switzerland and met the king of Russia.

Like the best pseudo-naive art, This Is the Way conceals formal beauty behind an illusion of formlessness. Anthony’s retellings of traveller myths and his recent past mingle with his accounts of his wanderings through Dublin, apparently at random; however, an elegant narrative structure is at work, leading us up to a powerful climax.

In the end, this fresh and funny novel is a devastating love story – one that comes upon you by stealth and stays with you long after you’ve finished reading.

Claire Lowdon is an assistant editor of the arts journal Areté

Gavin Corbett.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt