This is a heartbreaking novel of strength and survival set during the potato harvest of 1845 and the beginning of the Great Famine. Grace, the novel’s primary character, is thrown alone into the world at the age of fourteen. Her mother cuts her hair and dresses her as a boy to seek work and save her from hunger and a dangerous home life. Her 12-year-old brother, Colley, soon joins her. Serving on a road crew, her sex is discovered to be female, and she is saved from probable rape by a fellow worker. Grace begins a journey of the vast, suffering regions of Ireland.
The style is readable, if densely Dickensian in scope, but the story of Grace’s journey is still hard to bear for its sadness. The experience would be pure desperation for anyone, more so for a young woman left alone to fend for herself just as she is coming of age. Despite this, there is an unquenchable hope and strength in Grace in the way she deals with her demons, both inner and worldly. The reader is kept rooting for her survival as she lives multiple lives as a boy, a petty criminal with unexpected consequences, and finally an expectant mother.
Ignore the easy comparisons among Irish authors. Lynch is neither Faulkner nor McCarthy, but a voice of his own, spoken boldly and artfully, and drawn from a unique sensibility of pathos. Be ready to find poetry in tragedy, and this novel will not disappoint.