No Country begins with the discovery of the bodies of an Indian couple who’ve been murdered in their bed, in Clairmont, New York, November 1989. As the investigation gets underway the reader is taken back to County Sligo, Western Ireland, in 1843.
Best friends Padraig Aherne and Brendan McCarthaigh are watching the landlord’s tax men tear down the property of one of their friends. Times are hard for the poor of Ireland and they are about to get worse with the arrival of the Irish Potato Famine, which would claim around a million lives and drive another million away from the land of their birth.
Brendan is the calmer of the two friends as they grow up observing the unsettled landscape of their homeland as families begin to starve. Padraig’s passionate determination to fight for his country eventually drives him away from Ireland to make a new life in Calcutta, without informing anyone he knows or loves. As the years pass and the famine worsens in Ireland, Brendan also decides to leave, taking those that remain of Padraig’s family with him to America, hoping that one day their paths will cross again.
Ray has captured the authentic rhythm of the Irish language; you can hear the accent as you read even though he hasn't relied on obvious quirks in the language to express it. The sense of time and place is rendered beautifully in the detailed descriptions of the mundane as well as the dramatic. This ability to reflect the essence of different cultures through descriptive prose is continued throughout the novel as Ray takes the reader to India, America and other countries.
No Country explores how a person’s sense of identity is formed, what connects it to a time and place and how it can be uprooted, reformed and replanted. Historic events across each nation over the years drive the narrative, determining cause and effect, as the choices people make impact on each connection and missed opportunity. People die and new generations are born, some stay together others are torn apart. Each person in the chain struggles with a sense of identity and belonging, some cling to what they know others are forced to adapt to new circumstances. Others lie to themselves and betray those they profess to love because the loss they fear is more terrifying than what they might gain. Even the writing feels disconnected at times as it jumps from one person’s history to the next, which I thought was a great technique to make the reader feel as unsettled as the characters. This is a demanding read but a worthwhile one in order to understand how everyone is connected no matter how far they have travelled from the place they call home.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.