Book Review: No Country
By Kalyan Ray
Simon & Schuster, 2014
Kalyan Ray’s sprawling new historical novel, No Country (its US cover decked out in some kind of garish hideous quiltwork pattern, since God forbid a US hardcover dust jacket should be anything but garish and hideous) is set against the backdrop of what a far less talented writer once labeled “the Irish century” – the cataclysm of the Potato Famine and the Irish diaspora it spawned – and it tells the story of Brendan McCarthaigh and Padraig Aherne, boyhood friends from County Sligo, who stumble into adventures, in Ireland and abroad, that are fairly strictly representational of what a million of their countrymen lived through.
This is a familiar patch of ground for a sprawling historical novel to cover. Frank Delaney writes excellent books set against this same backdrop; Morgan Llywelyn writes very readable ones; Andrew Greeley writes wretched ones – it’s a going concern, and it comes pregnant with great perils, the greatest of which is what our ever-helpful Yiddish forebears referred to as schmaltz.
It’s a danger always right at Ray’s elbow, because Ray is a florid writer, a loquacious one, a capacious and sentimental one. These are grave sins in the catechism of contemporary fiction, and Ray hardly exonerates himself with passages like this foin bit o’ broth from Brendan and Padraig’s soft-focus childhood:
Our fireplaces kept us warm, and in their embers we cooked our sod-grown potatoes, delicious as no other, cool and earthy to the touch, cooked to perfection in our very own sod-fed embers and a lick of sea-salt dried off our Sligo Bay. That was how home tasted: The warm praties with but just a whiff of the peat and Irish mothersoil. I knew it in my heart, my mouth and nostrils.
But such is the strength of Ray’s narrative craftsmanship, such is the unsubtle power of his story, that No Country can survive even “praties.” It goes about its business: Padraig takes ship for Calcutta, and, after a fretting interval, Brendan (and Padraig’s little daughter, whom he’s mislaid) survives one of the notorious “coffin ships” and ends up in New York City. This split focus allows Ray to dramatize great tranches of research, and he usually manages that all-important duty of the historical novelist with smooth skill. The family Padraig establishes in Calcutta, for instance, grows to experience the raucous parallel of Indian colonialism:
The news from Jallianwala Bah broke over the land like a thunderclap.
“The Butcher of Amritsar: That’s what the vernacular newspapers are calling General Dyer,” my father said. “Our Nobel Laureate Sir Rabindranath Tagore has renounced his knighthood. You know, Robert, he is a friend of the Irish poet William Yeats. And Gandhi-ji has asked the British to quit India.” My father was reading and gathering all the news he could.
Father was also, obviously, gathering exposition, as many of Ray’s characters do in the course of these 500 pages, but there’s far more to No Country than exposition; many of the characters here – none of the female characters, mind you, but let’s not ask for miracles, begorrah – deepen in very pleasing ways as Ray’s multi-generational story unfolds. The book has more than history to relate, although the hard coils of history form its fences on all sides (in ways I suspect Ray doesn’t fully realize, some of his readers will see those fences and perhaps resent them). Since his characters stay aware of history at all times, they are never happy, never distracted, never whimsical, and although that can be wearying (and, it must be said, isn’t remotely realistic, even about the Irish), it also gives scope to Ray’s fine prose:
What would happen if we remembered everything? What would our world become under the terror of such accumulation? Every sunrise blessedly dries the damp spots of some previous unbearable rain, and the smudges take the place of the shocked midnight foot coming down upon a floor terrifyingly afloat in water. We need the vistas, I decided. The Old Masters knew the reasons of the heart and what it can bear in this world of ours.
No Country is an undertaking, but it repays some savoring and grows steadily in the memory. It’s a firmly masterful historical novel, and it may be more than that, at times very much feels more than that. Readers tired of watery postmodern milk-fiction could do much worse than to settle in with this invitingly old-fashioned yarn.