Book review: Shall We Gather at the River - Peter Murphy

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Peter Murphy is the god of his own disturbing, godless world – a resonant, diabolical slice of an Ireland familiar in the books of Patrick McCabe, but McCabe serves us death on a laugh-support machine.

Shall We Gather at the River

by Peter Murphy

Faber, 263pp, £12.99

Here Murphy’s crucified, thunder-rattled landscape offers tremors of dire foreboding, brought to life brilliantly, then led, it seems inexorably, towards death without even a mitigating twitch.

His two startling novels, John the Revelator, and now the even more terse and unflinchingly all-consuming Shall We Gather at the River – the former suggestive in its title of the Book of Revelation, the second evocative of a stirring Christian anthem – are books of hyperbole, of thunderbolt, neither readily forgotten.

Picture Murphy, omnipotent, enthroned, conducting the music of his beautifully swirling prose as it carries his characters towards their fate. In John the Revelator the story entwined its characters, James and John (named after the biblical ‘sons of thunder’), into a bond of teenage awakening, while John’s mother slid towards death and into three of fiction’s most lyrical final paragraphs. A hymn of aqueous sadness.

Murphy, taken perhaps by that ending, begins his follow-up book by evoking the River Rua surging in spate: “On the first day of November in the year of ’84 (it)…turned on the town of Murn…clouds gathered overhead like great black cattle, the sun dimmed and the air was charged with augury.’

That opening is soaked with a fatal predestination, emitting atmospheric low pressure from which the story never escapes. Its central character, Enoch O’Reilly, born in 1956 (“the year that Elvis released Blue Moon”), is the only child of Kathleen O’Reilly and her radio boffin husband.

Enoch grows up obsessed with the life and songs of the King, while Frank, Enoch’s father, is obsessed with the cellar radio, twiddling knobs in his underfloor world, his strange “Ghost Radio” with its greenly glowing dial, clocking the countdown to the next of the Rua’s great floods. But then Frank goes missing, and in no time Enoch is swallowed by life at a boarding school, and ensuing months at a seminary, each being hell holes of Catholic restrictiveness. He absconds.

Leaving Murn and his home, Ballo Manor, Enoch’s odyssey begins, a wilderness absence of sorts in the biblical tradition, portending his later return as a prophet – while time and the Rua roll on with fated inexorability towards the flood. Local history shows that the river overflows at mathematical intervals. Only the radio knows exactly the given day. And on each occasion it seems nine souls will be lost to the flood –whether by accident or suicide. Enoch’s timely reappearance in Murn to preach “that Holy Ghost fire…becoming luminous with its heat”, is the signal for tragedy and for Enoch’s consummation.

Unlike the relationships at the heart of John the Revelator, where John Devine’s dying mother becomes the emotive force of the book, there are no telling bonds to be tested or strengthened here. Enoch’s parents are ships in the night, Murn’s townspeople feature as walk-ons, fodder for crowd scenes as Enoch fulminates and grows luminous.

The nine victims of the flood-to-come are fingered early on. One turns out to be (predictably) Enoch’s father. Murphy keeps us awake and attentive by slicing and dicing the story’s telling across a time-frame of 90 years, from 1950 – and it is in its 21st-century future, with the 1984 flood but a tragic memory, that the novel, in its Epilogue (with percussion, brass and strings), takes final flight.

Enoch is there of course, but, alas, he cares about everyone and no- one. For the reader it is difficult to care about him in turn as he makes that journey, which is transparent from the outset – “There is a sense of unfolding, the certainty of what must happen. It was always bound to culminate in this..,” writes Murphy, four pages from the story’s final sentence: “Now comes the rain.”

Between rain and rain, there are narratives inside narratives (the tale of Frank O’Reilly is told in catechism format, question and answer, engaging another of the victims of the flood), or in excerpts from Enoch’s radio broadcasts. The pace is enough to pass the Stella Rimmington test of readability. But overall the book is a disappointment. Which, given the quality and precision, the evocativeness of its best descriptive writing, means a superior disappointment. Perhaps his third book will be, unpredictably, a storm of a different kind.