I was really feeling this one in the beginning. Himself is a debut novel with brilliant and razor-sharp writing. It’s stunningly powerful, indeed, that opening packs a brutal punch. It’s a compelling story with a hint of magical realism, a main character that can see dead people, and has many laugh out loud moments, but overall, felt too long and drawn out to make this a 5-star read for me.
The main character, Mahony, rolls into a small town, “a speck of a place on Ireland’s west coast” that carries many secrets. The biggest one being Mahony’s reason for returning to Mulderrig – to find the person responsible for killing his mother. The town of Mulderrig is filled with many colourful characters that provide so many laugh out loud moments, but none are truly too pleased to see Mahony and what his presence means and brings with him. The only person thrilled is this wonderful character named Mrs. Cauley. She is pleased as punch to shake the town up with their detective work. An elderly actress, she shares a similar gift with Mahony in seeing dead people – and they are everywhere in Mulderrig. With the help of Mrs. Cauley and this motley group of the dead, Mahony pieces together the mystery surrounding his mother’s death.
The bulk of the story happens during April and May 1976 when Mahony returns to Mulderrig. Mahony, long after living what you know to be a tortured existence in an orphanage, receives notice that one of the sisters there, Sister Veronica has passed. Here are a few insights into Mahony’s life in the orphanage, and Sister Veronica’s personality.
At the orphanage: “Forget the fact that the only time he ever went to Father McCluskey’s office was to have nine kinds of shite belted out of him.” and,
Mahony’s advice for other boys in the orphanage: “Avoid Sister Veronica as you would avoid death itself. The boys who have crossed her are hacked to pieces in a freezer in the basement. They’ve been labeled up as pork joints.”
Upon Sister Veronica’s passing, she left instructions that a letter be given to Mahony, “For when the child is grown“.
“Your name is Francis Sweeney. Your mammy was Orla Sweeny. You are from Mulderrig, Co. Mayo. This is a picture of yourself and her. For your information she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.”
Orla Sweeney was never a welcome presence in Mulderrig, and neither is Mahony now. But which person or persons, disliked her so much that they killed her? That she was murdered is no question in Mrs. Cauley’s or Mahony’s minds.
Yet, brilliant writing aside, which included a healthy peppering of similes throughout (one example: “Roisin is cleaning out the oven on account of it being as black as the devil’s eyebrows.”) I found my impatience for it to end took over my overall love for it. I limped to its end, exhausted, weary and spent. It needed to be a tighter read because as it plodded along, it failed to bring out new revelations, rather circling around the same characters with their idiosyncrasies and complaints about Mahony’s presence. So by the time we do reach the end, it’s revelation is anti-climatic, and already guessed.