Review: The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell

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reviewed by James Esposito

The House on Vesper Sands

Weidenfeld and Nicolson

£14.99 in UK

Paraic O’Donnell distinguished himself with his début novel The Maker of Swans (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2016) as one of the finest of his generation of novelists in Ireland. This accolade is sustained with the appearance of his new novel, The House on Vesper Sands. The sheer quality of his writing, coupled with his sense of how to grasp the reader in a compelling storyline, identifies him as a novelist of ingenuity, poetry and semantic and linguistic brilliance.

Both these novels are “gothic” in the sense that they uncover the uncanny which lurks at the heart of mystery, and within ourselves. The Maker of Swans might also qualify as an Irish “big house” novel, but the “house” in question is in England, as is the “house” at the centre of this new work. It is an unrelenting quest for a truth that is at once macabre, incredible and revealing of the reader’s own fears and complexities.

“House” is one of the tropes of Victorian fiction and in bringing it into the twenty-first-century O’Donnell is more than merely replicating a “gothic” storyline. One of his starting-points is a true-life linen sampler, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, embroidered in the 1830s by Elizabeth Parker, from which O’Donnell quotes the words “what will become of my soul”. The absence of a point d’interrogation underlines the ambiguity of the six words: is it in fact a question, or a statement; and if the latter, to what does “what” refer?

Eliza Richardson, wool sampler, 1837

A “gothic” novel is, by definition, qualitatively different from a detective story or a spy drama, despite their obvious similarities. Its mystery is detectable, but on its own terms – the mystery is mystical, uncanny as well as unknown. O’Donnell’s achievement – singular as far as I am aware – is to transcend the gothic by showing that its uncanny myths are universally available. “What shall become of my soul” becomes a leitmotiv for all, whether we are about to suffer an appalling death or merely a loss of some treasured attribute.

The mystery within those six words is spun out by O’Donnell with unrelenting precision and cunning into a “whodunnit” chase across London and southern England for, perhaps, an aristocratic mass-murderer… or perhaps not. It is also a breviary of decadence and a litany of the sins to which all of us are prone, from the sins of humourlessness and stupidity to those of lust and morbid passion.

Paraic O’Donnell

O’Donnell presents us with fictions which ring so frighteningly true that we fear for his own stability as a reflection and symbol of our own anxieties. The depth of sadness in the psyche that he suggests throughout and, at certain specific and intense points, with painful accuracy are haunting, sometimes beyond endurance.

O’Donnell is cruel in that he pervades his characters and their situations, their conversations and reflections, with poignant wit: his juxtaposition of the pathetic, the ridiculous, the insane and the mordant is remorseless and a powerful challenge to the reader. He is lyrical even in the recitation of tragedy. Sarcasm, irony and litotes torment both the characters and the reader. “My soul doth magnify the Lord” becomes, under his hand, not only a gesture towards Victorian piety but also (once you have read the book) an example of his cruel and mocking wit.

Phrases such as “jaded supplication” and “the lush slap of filth” make one re-think the uses of language in a curiously visual way. When he writes “The way the solid world is made strange by snow, the quiet secrecy it brought to ordinary things” I cannot but wonder at his extraordinary marriage of vision and poetry.

O’Donnell’s literary ancestors have been identified as Dickens and Conan Doyle and certainly there is a Victorian perspective of Scotland Yard plus Edgar Allan Poe in The House on Vesper Sands. But O’Donnell, even if he has not read them, embodies the spirit and themes of Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, Daphne du Maurier, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Wilkie Collins and R L Stevenson. It is also powerfully reminiscent of Alejandro Amenábar’s 2001 film The Others with Nicole Kidman and Fionnuala Flanagan. But he is not copying them: he has somehow accommodated their ideas of the bizarre and pitches them to us with his own vicious humour, painful empathy and baroque application.

“If Gideon had formed any distinct impression, it was that a puzzle was being set before him, and one that he was not yet equipped to solve.” This is the reader’s starting-point, too, but it recurs throughout the part of the book that is a thriller: as soon as meaning becomes clear, it is snatched away, and truth becomes as elusive as fiction. All the way from where we think we have come from, to the point where we might – but only might – be aware of a conclusion with some degree of resolution, O’Donnell plays with our susceptibilities, our preconceptions and our sense of justice.

Neither the starting-point nor the dénouement can be revealed, not only because the story would thus be violated but also because there are many starting-points and many dénouements along the way, all of them adding to the work’s journey from “requiem” to “lux perpetua”.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to read so elegant and elegiac a writer in an age of acclaimed mediocrity. This is an exciting, vibrant pen of immense imagination and great distinction. We must hope for more from him.

James Esposito is a philosopher of Italian, Irish and English origin. He lives partly in Connemara, in the west of Ireland, and partly in a deconsecrated monastery somewhere in Greece. His novel More Than Two was published in 2016.

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