Sunday, October 27, 2013

Manchán Magan's "Oddballs: A Novel of Affections": Review

A skilled chronicler in travel narratives and documentaries of those who wander the fringes, Manchán Magan's debut novel follows four characters on the fringe. Two of them, teenaged Rachel and her quasi-aunt Charlotte, collide after a long estrangement in New Hampshire, and take off on Charlotte's Wiccan pilgrimage to ye olde England of, as a bemused or bitter Rachel puts it, "Merlin and Voldemort." After a few detours, they wind up on a quasi-borrowed yacht that lands them off Co. Kerry. There, in the village of Reek, they meet Colm and Dónal, two brothers with their own tension. 

Magan, as a bilingual writer and observer of the Irish-language communities, sprinkles sentences of Gaeilge in to show the divide between the elderly and the youth, as English supplants the fading speech of the home, school, and church. He touches lightly on the gap, but he pins down the malaise that afflicts natives such as Colm and Dónal. For the former, unstable mentally, he cannot fit in to the small space where he avoids interactions with his neighbors. He yearns for release. Watching a crayfish pot bob, it mimics him. "It was caught in a loop now, and kept going back and forth, clanging each time until the thin batons of the hazel basket were in pieces and only the lead-grey buoy remained." (20) 

For the latter, he resents having to sing for his supper "to play the happy leprechaun for dimwit tourists" at the "jigs and reels show" at the local pub. He reflects at dawn as he looks over the ascetic expanse, the empty valley around Reek, down on soaked German campers. "To them it was idyllic, a haven from their fraught lives; to him it was a rope, a slowly tightening noose." (111) 

Into the brothers' eccentric or scant routines respectively, Rachel and Charlotte stumble ashore. Rachel, a "cutter" after the death of her boyfriend Nathaniel, broods. Carving out his name below her navel, another joins it above. "God had hurt the most as there was less flesh there." (36) Hobbled by an injury during her college track career, she finds herself unhappily tethered to Charlotte, who has her own troubled past to contend with. A determined witch, she suspects other women to share her purported powers, and she bristles at the conspiracy of maternal silence and patriarchal pain around her. As she warns Rachel whom she regards as a sister practitioner: "It's why we're all addicted to makeup now, we want to hide the blemishes." (79)

Magan, no stranger given his journalism to introverted paths less traveled, sharpens his wit and quickens the pace once he sets what starts off as a slow tale into motion, after Rachel and Charlotte cross the ocean. "Sagely take heed and remove your noises from our seas, we plead." So channels the girl assuming the oracular medium as Charlotte and Rachel get drawn within an English New Age circle. "I am of the council of dolphin breath, honoured to be invited to share amongst you this day." (100-101) 

I expected much more of such satire, but this novel unfolds through a kitten's funeral, a cliffside revelation, and encounters of mutual recognition, into a more poignant depiction of marginal people. As Charlotte realizes: "There had to be a Canada in the realms beyond; every universe needs its Canada." (234) That is, a place for spiritual liberation, a border to cross into a place less heavy for those among us so frail. Speaking of frontiers, a few clunky non-Americanisms for his American pair's speech aside, and a few typos, detract little from the grace that increasingly infuses a lightly sketched tale about darker, incised moods, and the possibility of gradual, dogged renewal. 

(Slugger O'Toole, and a bit altered to Amazon US 5-4-13. See under blog keyword Manchán Magan for my other reviews of Magan's Truck Fever (Africa), Angels and Rabies (Americas) and Manchan's Travels (India); his eponymous site is linked under my blog roll.)


Tony Bailie said...

There was much that I liked about this novel but somehow it didn't quite deliver for me. Still, given his travel writing and general take on the world and the good parts of this one I hope to see more novels.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Tony, I think while some of this needed more elaboration--the setting felt alternately vivid and vague, and supporting characters similarly onstage briefly or out of the picture--the Charlotte character had her moments, and that made this readable. I realize it may not be the author's best compared to his travel writings, but he's expanding his repertoire and this may lead to a firmer mix of fact and fiction, I suspect, to come.