literary journalism

Conor O’Callaghan’s ‘We Are Not In The World’

As its title implies, We Are Not in the World inhabits a hazy purgatory—temporal, spatial and psychological. Heartbroken after the end of an affair with a married woman, Paddy dusts off an old HGV license, borrows a lorry from an ailing friend, and takes a job driving from England down through France. Kitty, his twenty-something daughter, comes along for the ride, disobeying the insurance company’s no-passenger rule. Kitty has suffered a terrible trauma—“the thing that we never mention”—the details of which are revealed as the story drives towards its denouement.

The trip takes place in August 2015, when the refugee population in the ‘Calais Jungle’ was growing: “The road was lined with wire fencing, fingers pushed through, faces pressed against…The fence is staring at us. And we’re trying not to make eye contact, with the fence.” Paddy and Kitty’s dialogue is interspersed with flashbacks. We learn about Paddy’s long-term love affair, told in reverse chronological order; the fraught relationship with his family; and Kitty’s struggles to fit in growing up in America. Paddy feels guilty for having moved back to Ireland after divorcing her mother and not being more present [in her life / while he was “fogbound in desire” for his mistress]. “I’m sorry for leaving her half alone in a place where we were always already strangers,” he thinks. “…There are whole years there somewhere still, when she was more of a girl and more in need than I could see or she would have allowed herself to admit, that her old man would have again and do over and make better.”

While Paddy drives away from Ireland, his brother—the family favourite—is trying to sell their childhood home, christened Tír na nÓg. When Kitty was a girl, Paddy often told her the legend of the poet-hero Oisín accompanying the fairy Niamh to the Land of Youth. Homesick after what feels like three years but turns out to have been three hundred, Oisín returns to visit Ireland on a magical white steed, so as not to touch the ground and break the spell of eternal youth. When he stops to help a man moving marble, Oisín falls from the horse, ages rapidly and dies. “Time passes,” reflects Paddy. “Or rather, this is what passes for time. We are not in the world exactly…The saddle is sliding off. We’re sliding off with it and can’t stop time happening.”

Read the full review online in the Irish Times

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