I've been feeling particularly stingy with my five-star reviews these last few months. Though I've always tried to not throw them out there with too much ease, restricting them only to the books that really affect me for some reason or another (sometimes very different reasons for books that exist within that same bracket), I felt that perhaps I'd been too free with them over the last year or so and have been trying to reign them in a bit.
However, ever since I posted my review on Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, I've realized that perhaps I've overcorrected. On my original review, I gave Lincoln four stars but have since been thinking about it pretty much every day, forcing myself to acknowledge that it really is a five star book for me (and I've since corrected that).
When I started assessing about halfway through Himself how many stars I might give it (as I always do, being a consummate goodreads reader), I wondered about the five stars yet again. Too generous? Really, with a debut novel? Really, when I just admitted that the SAUNDERS is a five star?
But damn it, Kidd just absolutely convinced me. I found this novel to just be fucking amazing. It opens in 1976 rural Ireland. It's impossible to categorize it simply as magical realism or as a strict fantasy. It's not a fantasy in the traditional fantasy sense but the level of magical in the magical realism does catapult it out of that tidy category. It's also a mystery, by the way.
Mahony is an orphan in his early twenties who returns to the tiny village to discover what happened to his mother there, in the 1950s. The dark humor, searing wittiness, and incredible descriptions are in themselves certainly strong enough to carry the book, but Kidd then adds that Mahony is constantly (constantly) seeing the dead everywhere he goes and doing his best not to interact with them as frequently as he would the living (and mostly deceptive people) around him.
I imagine (and have seen a couple of reviews out there), that the level of magical realism and/or the highly descriptive language will be too much for some readers. I, however, loved every line.
"Last Thursday, Father Gerard McNamara walked into the Bridge Tavern with a black leather folio in his hand and an envelope inside the folio. He was seeking one of St. Anthony's most notorious alumni and had started by visiting the bars within a one-mile radius of the orphanage. For Father McNamara was heeding the advice of the local guards along with the principle that a rotten apple doesn't fall far from the tree; it usually festers right next to it."
"Mrs. Cauley had paid very well for many years, keeping a roof in Rathmore House, a fire in the hearth, and glass in some of the windows. Mrs. Cauley had even stayed after the standards dropped when Shauna's mammy ran off to England with a guest, leaving Shauna's daddy hermited with grief in his workshop, reading about fairies and talking to himself in a Protestant accent."
"With great effort, she stands and Mahony sees how small she is, not quite five feet tall and the weight of dry hide and honeycomb bone alone."
"The night air stalks into the room and starts to tease the dust along the skirting boards."
"Mahony shrugs. How can he explain? How can he explain to Mrs. Cauley that Father Jim is just a vague copy of his former living self? That just like any other dead person, his mind, if you can call it a mind, has ceased to exist. For the dead don't change or grow. They're just echoes of the stories of their own lives sung back in the wrong order: arsewards. They're the pattern on closed eyelids after you turn away from a bright object. They're twice-exposed film. They're not really here, so cause and effect mean nothing to them."
"The wind is still and the storm has passed and Father Quinn is up with the surviving larks before the town is even awake enough to find its bollocks, let alone scratch them."
"At twenty minutes past eleven, refusing a package of sandwiches and a flask of tea from Shauna, Mahony exits the west-facing door of the village hall. He takes the back road to Kerrigan's bar and sees no one. He enters the saloon door at twenty-four minutes past eleven. Tadhg is stacking bottles of lemonade behind the bar. Mahony asks the crack of Tadhg's arse if he can have a lend of the car. The crack says he can of course but it's full of chickens. Mahony thanks the crack and runs out of the back door."
Man, there's so many lines I want to share! Speaking of which, please note that I was given an advance copy by Atria (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) for review and it doesn't come out until next Tuesday, the 14th, so there's always a possibility of the final print being different than some of the lines I've shared here. But I just find the writing so lyrical and compelling and funny that I can't help myself.
By the way, Chapter 44, while I was finishing last night, just about did my head (and heart) in. Devastating. Gorgeous. It'll stick with me for a very, very long time.
Highly recommended. Kidd has instantly become an author for whom I will auto-buy.