“Stick to a story long enough, and the story sticks to you. It has become like a private garden I return to in my head. Every now and then I make amendments: prune something, plant elsewhere. I have tinkered so much that I cannot be certain which flowers were here and which were introduced by me.”
This quote, which comes at the very last page of the book, perfectly encapsulates the idea behind it. Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan is one of those novels that elude categorization or a definitive interpretation. Its ambiguity is its strongest suit. It can be construed as a gothic cum dystopic novella, or as a subtle psychodrama, depending on what you infer from it.
The narrator is a priest who is retrospecting on the day when a young girl appears on his doorstep, disrupting his solitude and, eventually, his life. The girl, dishevelled and peculiar, has words scrawled all over her skin and when she speaks, she speaks in halting English. She claims to have no name, and goes by Helen, her mother’s name. She proceeds to tell the priest about the bizarre story of her family’s disappearance with the loaded statement, “My papa is gone too”.
The plot line is centred on the mysterious disappearance of a strange family, with an obscure past. They seem to be outsiders, starting over in an unfinished Irish housing state after some sinister incident, which is only alluded to in the book, and never explicitly revealed. The family consists of a couple, Helen and Paul, and their daughter whose name we are never told. Helen’s twin sister, Martina, lives with them, and seems to have an abstruse relationship with Paul.
One by one, all the family members start disappearing, beginning with Helen. Efforts are made to trace Helen’s whereabouts, her posters are put up around the estate but to no avail. Soon, the girl starts talking like her mother and even Paul and Martina starts to call her Helen. There are strange occurrences; doors incessantly bang in the middle of the night, raucous noises come out of a house that Paul finds to have been vacant all along and the girl sees her mother’s ghost walking across the garden in a bridesmaid dress.There is an ominous air of impending doom in the writing, from the very beginning. O’Callaghan weaves together an intriguing narrative, which relies on a highly atmospheric ambience, acting as a propulsive agent to the plot. There is no tangible element of real horror in the events that transpire – the disappearances, the desolate setting and idiosyncrasies of characters all have rational explanations. However, the disquieting sense of menace that the writer manages to imply makes even the quotidian scenes seem eerie. The forsaken nature of the housing estate is explained by the Irish economy woes but the depiction of the uninhabited houses and market almost take on a dystopic undertone.
“Once their eyes adjusted to the indoor murk, they could see that the produce wasn’t shelved, It was just piled high on pallets you had to climb up onto to pull things down. Some of the ‘Special Offer’ signs hanging from the ceiling were in a language neither of them recognized or could decipher. All the food came in wrapping that looked off-colour, in brand names that sounded fractionally to one side of what you would expect.”
Passages such as the one above reminded me of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, which describes a rapidly disintegrating society. There is also an unnerving dinner scene involving the local bigwig, Slattery and Hazel, his wife, who bizarrely seems to be incapable of saying much besides chanting Paul’s name who along with the girl, is a dinner guest at their house.
Our narrator, the priest, seems like an objective narrator as he recounts the incidents but soon, as the mystery unravels, we are forced to question just how reliable his account is. He himself seems to ricochet between certainty and ambivalence during the course of the story. The authorities seem to regard him as a dubious figure, when it comes to the disappearance of the girl. As he himself remarks. “After a certain age, a man has to work hard to look trustworthy. That’s even truer in this vocation.”
The writing is extremely self-assured and O’Callaghan’s background as a poet is all the more evident in the lucid descriptions of the dreary landscape. Apart from that, his storytelling is pretty streamlined and matter of fact. This is a haunting debut with subtle horror tones, which are never fully revealed. This book might not be for those who like stories with clear-cut endings. Nothing on Earth raises more questions than it answers, but that only adds to the illusory nature of the story, backed by O’Callaghan’s remarkable writing prowess.
Nothing On Earth was published by Doubleday Ireland on 19 May 2016.