Red Sky in Morning
December 4, 2019

Red Sky in Morning, Paul Lynch's 2013 debut novel, is a stylistic tour de force. Like the poetry of Seamus Heaney (whom Lynch credits for inspiration), he captures the craggy, muck-mudded landscape of Lynch's native Ireland.

Convoluted syntax, unobtrusive Irish colloquialisms, hints of alliterative verse lend the novel a distinctly Celtic archaism.

The opening sentences illustrate: "Night sky was black and then there was blood, morning crack of light on the edge of the earth. The crimson spill sent the bright stars to fade, hills stepping out of shadow and clouds finding flesh. First rain from a soundless sky and music it made of the land."

Adding the articles back into that last sentence ("the first rain") robs it of its power. If Lynch had written what we expect, "It made music of the land," he wouldn't have signalled so strongly that he's writing a tale that might be sung by a bard. "It made music of the land" doesn't scan.

That kind of prose grabs my attention. My one worry is that I'll get stuck in thickly layered poetry and lose track of the story; or, worse, discovered there's no story to lose track of.

Lynch's book doesn't suffer those defects. If the density of the prose comes from Heaney, characters and plot come from a Cormac McCarthy novel. (In an afterword, Lynch mentions his debt to Blood Meridian.)

Red Sky in Morning is a 275-page chase sequence, set in the 1830s, with the young Coll Coyle as the prey and the relentless, sadistic Faller as tracker, the most terrifying villain since McCarthy's Chigurh (No Country for Old Men). The plot is tight, but slows slightly whenever Faller goes unmentioned for a few pages.

Faller fancies himself an agent to bring balance to the world. At one point, he turns philosophical (like one of McCarthy's cowboys or lawmen) and explains the human condition in a single sentence: It's all a matter of "weight."

In the womb, we're weightlessly suspended in fluid. Why do infants start "mewling . . . like an animal" as soon as they're born? "It is because it feels itself for the first time, discovers its own weight in the world. . . . With weight comes sensation and pain and hunger and the need for sleep and all these wants and needs and all of that ad infinitum."

We can't recover from the pain of our own weight, because the more we need the more we want: "give a hungry man soup and he asks for meat. And when he's given meat one finds he's sitting at your table. Next thing he's asking for the silverware." People "aren't people" but "animals, brutes, blind and stupid" who pursue "endless needs" without knowing where they come from and without realizing that "all the rest we place on top to make is feel better is a delusion."

Under these circumstances, murder is a form of mercy: "The price of life is the burden of your own weight and some people are better off without it."

Later, facing his own tracker, Faller reflects on the way our calculations "are destroyed by accidents or agencies beyond our control." It's "nonsense" to think we control our fate: "Every man, every nation, thinks they have control over a world that throws them about like a high wind. I'll tell you, there's always an agency more powerful than your own." That, Faller says is "the terrible beauty of it."

That's Lynch's novel in a phrase: With its rugged prose and relentless plot, it's a thing of "terrible beauty."

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