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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.